Berlusconi sex trial verdict to follow elections

The verdict in former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's trial for underage sex will not come before the February general elections, a court in northern Italy said Monday.

The decision marks a partial victory for the media magnate, who will be a candidate in the polls, after his defence team asked for a total suspension until after the February 24-25 polls.

Hearings will continue, including testimony on January 28 from the mother of the Moroccan-born exotic dancer at the centre of the case.

Judges said a diary clash caused the cancellation of hearings initially set for February 18 and 25, and the last hearing was likely to take place on March 11.

The court turned down the request by the media magnate's lawyers for a total suspension of the trial until after the elections last week.

While the billionaire has launched his sixth election bid in two decades, he is still mulling whether to run for the post of prime minister or settle for another post within his centre-right People of Freedom (PDL) party.

Berlusconi's supporters said the ruling amounted to judicial interference in the campaign, while his critics said the 76-year-old billionaire was only running for office to stay out of jail.

Berlusconi is accused of paying for sex with Karima El-Mahroug in 2010 at his mansion near Milan when she was just 17 and he was the prime minister.

She will not be testifying, though her written testimony, where she described wild "Bunga Bunga" parties hosted by Berlusconi, will still be considered in the case.

Berlusconi faces up to three years in prison on the sex charge as the age of consent in Italy is only 14, but sex with an under-18 prostitute is a crime.

He is also accused of abusing his official powers by pressuring police to release El-Mahroug when she was arrested for petty theft -- a charge that carries a maximum prison sentence of 12 years.

His defence says Berlusconi thought El-Mahroug was a niece of then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and wanted to avoid a diplomatic incident.

The flamboyant tycoon is unlikely to ever see the inside of a prison cell even if convicted since sentencing guidelines in Italy are very lenient for over-70-year-olds.

Berlusconi denies having sex with El-Mahroug, saying he only gave her money so she could set up a beauty parlour and avoid prostituting herself.

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