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Court denies Berlusconi bid to halt pay-for-sex trial, verdict could come before election

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MILAN - A Milan court on Monday rejected a bid by former Premier Silvio Berlusconi to halt his sex-for-hire trial for Italy's general election campaign, a ruling that makes a verdict likely before the February vote.

Berlusconi's lawyer accused the court of "interfering heavily" in the Italian political campaign by refusing to suspend the trial so Berlusconi can dedicate himself to campaigning for his centre-right coalition.

"A verdict will most certainly come before the election. It seems to me this is the clear intent of the court," defence lawyer Niccolo Ghedini told reporters. "It doesn't bother us, but it should bother citizens since it is obvious that it will impact the electoral campaign."

Berlusconi denounced the trial as "a comedy, a farce, a defamatory hoax," in an interview with Sky TG24.

Prosecutors accused Ghedini of merely seeking to delay a verdict in the nearly 2-year-old trial, which started when Berlusconi was still in office. He resigned some seven months later, making room for Mario Monti's technical government, as the sovereign debt crisis threatened to engulf Italy.

Despite his legal woes and sex scandal, Berlusconi's centre-right coalition has been gaining in the polls since he actively began campaigning. Berlusconi, 76, also has been boosted by combative televised debates with journalistic critics.

Berlusconi is accused of having paid for sex with a Moroccan woman, Karima el-Mahroug, when she was 17, during racy "bunga bunga" parties with attractive young women at his villa near Milan, and then using his influence to cover it up.

Both he and el-Mahroug have denied sexual relations.

Berlusconi has apologized for hosting the parties, saying he was lonely after splitting from his second wife. Veronica Laria left him in 2009, citing alleged dalliances with young women.

El-Mahrough, 20, better known as Ruby, made her first appearance in court on Monday, where she was called by the defence to testify. The court had ordered her to return from a trip abroad and fined her €200 ($270) after she failed twice to show up. But Berlusconi's lawyers changed their strategy and decided to renounce her testimony, saying they wanted to "avoid another development in the trial that interferes with the serenity of the election campaign."

The prosecution did not include el-Mahroug on its witness list, instead relying on her testimony during the investigation and other evidence to make their case.

El-Mahroug's lawyer, Paola Boccardi, said her client wasn't angry that she didn't have to testify, just "surprised that she wasn't heard."

El-Mahroug looked relaxed, chatting with her lawyer while in court, but refused to speak with reporters after she was informed her testimony wasn't needed. She wore a dark parka with fur trim, Ugg boots and carried a fashionable Louis Vuitton handbag. The judges thanked her for appearing.

Ghedini had filed a motion to suspend the proceeding, citing the demands of Italy's election campaign. The prosecution opposed the request, arguing that Berlusconi was neither the formal head of his party nor its official candidate for premier, and that he has infrequently shown up for trail anyway, as is his right.

In their ruling, the judges said Berlusconi's absences for a political campaign were a personal choice and couldn't be compared with having a parliamentary obligation — which has been accepted as a legitimate reason to delay a trial.

Ghedini told reporters that the campaign and Berlusconi's role in vetting a list of nearly 1,000 candidates was directly related to the parliament and "of great political and institutional relevance."

Berlusconi's centre-right coalition is facing the centre-left Democratic Party, which is leading, and centrist parties united under a Monti agenda. Berlusconi has long accused Milan magistrates of mounting politically inspired campaign against him — an allegation they deny.

Berlusconi faces two other cases in Milan, including the appeal set to begin Friday of his conviction for tax fraud and four-year sentence last October. Ghedini said he will seek hearing-by-hearing delays in the pending trials citing Berlusconi's election commitments.

As the trial nears its close, Ghedini said he wanted to call six other witnesses on his list who hadn't yet appeared, including actor George Clooney, Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo and el-Mahroug's mother.

Clooney has said he was approached by Berlusconi's team to testify about the "bunga bunga" parties, but says he only visited the premier's residence once to seek aid for Darfur and declined an invitation to stay.

Ronaldo and his lawyers have reportedly denied the Portuguese forward was even in the same city as el-Mahroug, much less had any personal contact.

"Those reports are completely false. I do not know the woman that they are talking about. I have never met her and never got together with her. On December 29, 2009, I was in Madrid training with the team," Cristiano Ronaldo said in a press release last February.

The court is expected to decide Monday on the request to hear from the additional witnesses. Two more hearings were set, on Jan. 28 and Feb. 4.

_____

Harald Heckle in Madrid contributed to this report.

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