An attempt by Silvio Berlusconi to have his sex trial postponed until after Italy's election next month was rejected yesterday by a court in Milan.
Judges dismissed a request by the former prime minister's lawyers to have the trial suspended until after February 24-25, when Italians go to the polls.
Defence lawyers had argued that the trial, in which Mr Berlusconi is accused of abuse of office and paying for sex with an alleged under-age prostitute, would be exploited by opposition political parties to harm his chances of re-election.
"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 said.
They had also invoked the principle of "legitimate impediment", arguing that the trial compromised Mr Berlusconi's parliamentary duties and impeded his election campaigning.
Karima El Mahroug, the Moroccan-born woman at the heart of the trial, was due to give evidence for the defence yesterday, but Mr Berlusconi's lawyers withdrew her as a witness, meaning she will not address the trial at all. Instead, statements she gave to prosecutors about the so-called "bunga bunga" parties will be heard in court.
Miss El Mahroug, who went by the stage name of Ruby the Heart Stealer when she performed exotic dances in nightclubs, was 17 when she attended some of Mr Berlusconi's notorious parties at his mansion outside Milan.
Accepting sexual services from a woman under the age of 18 is a crime in Italy and carries a jail sentence of up to three years. The abuse of office charge carries a sentence of up to 12 years. Mr Berlusconi (76) denies both charges. Miss El Mahroug, now 20, has consistently denied having sexual intercourse with the former prime minister.
Meanwhile Mr Berlusconi's centre-right coalition is making rapid gains ahead of next month's elections, the latest polls suggest, increasing the possibility that even if the centre-left wins as expected it may not be able to form a stable Italian government. (© Daily Telegraph, London)