Berlusconi's bid to halt trial rejected by court

After four hours of deliberations, the judges in former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's pay-for-sex trial have rejected his request to halt his trial ahead of Italy's upcoming general election.

Moroccan woman at the centre of the case won't testify

Karima el-Mahroug, centre, arrives at ex-PM Silvio Berlusconi's sex-for-hire trial, Monday. Berlusconi is accused of paying for sex with el-Mahroug, better known as Ruby, when she was 17 and then trying to cover it up. Both deny any sexual contact. (Spada/LaPresse/Associated Press)

A Milan court on Monday rejected a bid by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi to halt his sex-for-hire trial because of Italy's general election campaign, a ruling that means a verdict could come before the February vote.  

Berlusconi's lawyers also decided not to call the Moroccan woman at the centre of the case, Karima el-Mahroug, to testify, saying her testimony would have "interfered with the serenity of the electoral campaign."  

But they asked to hear from six more witnesses instead, including actor George Clooney, who has said he visited Berlusconi's residence once.  

El-Mahroug, better known as Ruby, had appeared in court on Monday ready to testify after having failed to show on two previous dates, purportedly because she was in Mexico on vacation.  

Berlusconi is accused of paying for sex with the 20-year-old when she was 17 during his notorious "bunga bunga" parties — racy soirées at his villas in which dozens of young women were present — and then using his office to cover it up. Both deny sexual contact.

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.   

Berlusconi attorney Niccolo 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 prime minister, and that he has infrequently shown up for trial anyway, as is his right.

Verdict likely in February

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 said that in allowing the trial to go ahead, it was clear the court wanted to see a verdict before the Feb. 24-25 election.  

"It doesn't bother us at all. It should bother the citizens because it is obvious that this will impact the electoral campaign," he told reporters.    

Berlusconi has long accused Milan magistrates of mounting politically inspired cases against him — a charge they deny.  

Prosecutors had already said they didn't need el-Mahroug's court testimony, explaining they had what they needed from other evidence already submitted.

The defence had put her on its witness list, but Ghedini on Monday declined to call her.  

"We would have preferred to hear her in the trial, but it is unthinkable to do something like this when the election campaign is in full swing," he said. "Our renunciation is a bitter renunciation."  

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."  

Ghedini, however, said he wanted to call six other witnesses on his witness list who hadn't yet been heard from, including Clooney 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 prime minister's residence once to seek aid for Darfur and declined an invitation to stay.  

The court is expected to decide Monday on the request to hear from the additional witnesses. El-Mahroug looked relaxed, chatting with her lawyer while in court.

She wore a dark parka with fur trim, Ugg boots and carried a fashionable Louis Vuitton handbag.