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Last updated: January 14, 2013 3:20 pm
Judges have decided to proceed with the trial of Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s former prime minister, on charges he paid for sex with an underage prostitute, raising the prospect of a verdict before next month’s general election.
Lawyers for Mr Berlusconi, who is seeking election for a sixth time, had made a last-ditch attempt to delay the trial in Milan where Karima El Mahroug, a Moroccan nightclub dancer who goes by the stage name of “Ruby Heartstealer”, was due to testify on Monday about her alleged relationship with the billionaire.
The three women judges presiding over the trial rejected claims by Niccolo Ghedini, a lawyer for the media tycoon, who had argued it should be delayed until after the February 25 poll for reason of “legitimate impediment” because Mr Berlusconi is involved in an election campaign.
However, they agreed to allow Mr Berlusconi’s lawyers to withdraw Ms Mahroug as a trial witness on the basis that they could use statements she had previously made to the police. Expressing surprise, Ms Mahroug, who made only a brief appearance in court, dressed casually and looking relaxed, said she had “wanted to be heard”.
Mr Ghedini told reporters afterwards: “With this decision the court has interfered heavily in the electoral campaign.”
Recent polls have shown the media mogul and his allies trailing the centre-left Democrats who are expected to win next month. But that lead has narrowed in the past few days as Mr Berlusconi has stepped up a populist campaign presenting himself as a defender of Italian interests at a time when austerity measures imposed by the technocratic government of Mario Monti are taking their toll.
A poll in Sunday’s edition of newspaper Corriere della Sera showed the centre-right ahead of the centre-left in Lombardy, the region surrounding Milan that is set to be crucial to next month’s election outcome.
Ms Mahroug denies having sex with Mr Berlusconi. Mr Berlusconi has denied all charges related to the trial, including abuse of office in telling the chief of a Milan police station that he believed Ms Mahroug – detained at the time on suspicion of theft – to be related to Hosni Mubarak, then president of Egypt.
Magistrates had demanded Ms Mahroug appear in court after she failed to turn up for a previous appearance in December. Lawyers for the showgirl, who incurred a €5,000 fine for her non-appearance, said she had been unable to attend the earlier date because she was on holiday in Mexico.
Prosecutors blamed her failure to turn up on Mr Berlusconi’s defence whom they accused of using “delaying tactics” and the desire to keep her out of court while Mr Berlusconi cranked up his re-election campaign. Mr Berlusconi’s lawyer denies this.
The court’s public gallery was full on Monday, mostly with older men. Andrea, 65, a retired lawyer who would not give his surname, said he had always voted for Mr Berlusconi and would do so again. “I’ve come to see it proven in law that this trial is a construction of the left,” he told the FT. “It’s a construction set up by leftwing women, leftwing feminists.”
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