By Antonella Ciancio
MILAN (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi will not be in court when his trial on charges of paying for sex with an underage teenager opens in Milan on Wednesday.
The case, in which the 74-year-old prime minister is accused of paying nightclub dancer Karima El Mahroug, whose stage name is Ruby, for sex when she was under the legal age limit of 18, is one of the most sensational in Italy's postwar history.
Berlusconi, one of Italy's richest entrepreneurs as well as its prime minister and dominant political figure, denies the charges and says he never had sex with El Mahroug.
He denies a related charge of abuse of office arising from telephone calls he made to have the young woman released from a Milan police station where she had been detained on unrelated theft allegations.
The so-called "Rubygate" case has gripped world attention, feeding newspaper readers in Italy and abroad with lurid stories of "bunga bunga" sex parties at the prime minister's palatial private residence near Milan.
Berlusconi has dismissed the stories and attacked what he says are leftist magistrates bent on destroying him, but falling poll ratings show months of scandal have eaten away at his popularity.
The trial opening on Wednesday has already attracted media interest from around the world but Berlusconi's closest aide, cabinet undersecretary Gianni Letta said the prime minister would skip the hearing, which would deal only with procedural matters.
"It has already been decided that he will definitely not be attending," Letta told Reuters.
However, the trial may be disrupted even before it has begun depending on the result of a vote in parliament on Tuesday which could potentially delay or at least slow down the hearings.
Deputies are due to vote on whether the Milan court is the appropriate venue for the trial or whether it should be held before a special ministerial tribunal, as the abuse of office charge relates to Berlusconi's function as prime minister.
If parliament rules the case should be heard by the special tribunal, confirmation would be needed from the constitutional court. Wednesday's hearing could still proceed but would have the threat of interruption hanging over it in future.
An unrelated series of trials on fraud charges linked to Berlusconi's broadcasting empire Mediaset has been going on at the same time and on Monday, prosecutors outlined their case against the prime minister in a closed hearing in Milan.
The case centers on accusations Berlusconi's companies deliberately overpaid for television and film rights, allowing the difference to be skimmed off by offshore companies run by front men and put into illegal slush funds.
Berlusconi appeared at the first hearing last week but missed Monday's court date because he was in Tunisia for talks on the migrant crisis in southern Italy.
Defendants are not required to attend hearings, although Berlusconi has said previously he would be present at as many as his schedule permitted.
(Additional reporting by Manuela D'Alessandro in Milan and Gavin Jones in Rome; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Andrew Dobbie)