Bunga Bunga verdict after election

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iol pic wld silvio_italy dce 28 AFP Italy's former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Rome - A ruling in the trial of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi on charges of underage prostitution and abuse of power will be issued after a parliamentary election next month, a Milan court said Monday.

A ruling had been expected before the February 24-25 vote, which prompted Berlusconi to complain that it could have unfairly influenced the results. The court rejected demands from his lawyers to suspend the trial during the campaign.

But since one of the presiding judges will not be able to attend hearings that had been scheduled for February 18 and 25, proceedings will take longer, the court said, saving Berlusconi from the risk of another conviction in the run up to the elections.

Berlusconi could still face the embarrassment of the prosecution delivering its final arguments against him while the campaign is still ongoing. The three-time prime minister leads a centre-right coalition, but is not bidding again for the premiership.

The trial's final hearings were set for March 4 and 11, which could be the date of the verdict.

Berlusconi, 76, is accused of having paid for sex with Karima el-Mahroug, a nightclub dancer also known as Ruby Rubacuori (Ruby Heart Stealer), who was 17 at the time.

Both Berlusconi and El-Mahroug deny having had a sexual relationship. But she admitted to having been a guest of night-time parties at Berlusconi's villa where others engaged in so-called “bunga bunga” erotic games.

Berlusconi is also on trial for pressuring police to release the woman after she had been held on suspicion of theft. Pleading for special treatment, he is said to have falsely told officers that she was a niece of then Egyptian president Hosny Mubarak.

El-Mahroug's mother is to testify for the defence on January 28, while US actor George Clooney and Real Madrid footballer Cristiano Ronaldo were struck off from the list of witnesses, as judges deemed that their testimonies were not needed.

The defence had summoned them after el-Mahroug claimed to have seen Clooney at Berlusconi's villa and to have slept with Ronaldo in a Milan hotel. Both men have refuted the allegations and their testimonies could have cast a shadow over her credibility.

More defence witnesses may be heard on February 4, the court said.

If found guilty, Berlusconi could face prison sentences ranging from six months to three years for the underage prostitution charges, and from three to eight years for abuse of power - but the rulings would not be enforced if he were to appeal.

The billionaire media mogul and politician faces more legal woes in the coming weeks. A ruling in the appeal trial against the four-year prison conviction he was served in October for tax fraud is expected to be delivered in March. - Sapa-dpa


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