Milan

Berlusconi sex trial suspended as court weighs bias

Ex-premier accused of sex with underaged dancer

Berlusconi sex trial suspended as court weighs bias

(By Denis Greenan). Milan, March 25 - Silvio Berlusconi's high-profile sex trial was suspended until next month Monday as judges said they had to wait for a supreme-court ruling on the ex-premier's claim they are biased against him. In the closely watched trial, Berlusconi is accused of allegedly paying for sex with an underage dancer named Ruby. The Milan judges on Monday suspended proceedings until April 22. The supreme Cassation Court is set to rule on a defence motion to move the trial from Milan to nearby Brescia on a recent petition alleged grounds of biased judges. A ruling whether to admit the petition at the Cassation is expected April 18. Defence lawyers accuse the Milan judges and prosecutors of being "hostile" to Berlusconi, as allegedly shown by their recent orders for medical checks that an eye problem which sent the ex-premier to hospital made him genuinely unable to attend hearings. The trial had already been adjourned three times after Berlusconi spent over a week in hospital with a condition reportedly caused by someone poking him in the eye and high blood pressure as a result. The court had ordered the trial to resume on Monday. Prosecutors had asked the judges not to delay the trial again, saying the 76-year-old media magnate was in "contempt of court" for playing for time. Berlusconi is accused of paying to have sex with a young Moroccan dancer, Karima El Mahroug, better known as Ruby the Heart-stealer, before she was 18 after alleged "bunga bunga" sex parties at his home. Both the ex-premier and the woman deny ever having sex. She said money she received from Berlusconi was given as part of a gift. Berlusconi is also accused of abuse of office for allegedly having used his influence when he was premier to spring El Mahroug from a Milan police station to hush up the affair after an unrelated theft claim, saying she was the niece of then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. The charge of having sex with an underage prostitute carries a jail term of up to three years, and abuse of office 12 years. Berlusconi's lawyers have also asked for the ex-premier's appeals trial in Milan, which regards a four-year conviction for tax fraud on film rights involving his Mediaset television empire, to be moved to Brescia on the same grounds of alleged judicial bias. If claims of judicial bias are upheld in Italy, trials are moved to the nearest big city. Brescia is 82 km (51 miles) east of Milan. A poll Friday said a third of Italians agree with the media tycoon's claim that allegedly left-wing magistrates have been trying to hound him out of politics since he became premier in 1994. Berlusconi has insisted he will not meet the same fate as his one-time sponsor and personal friend, late premier Bettino Craxi, who was driven from power by anti-corruption probes and died in self-imposed exile in Tunisia in 2000. The centre-right leader, whose burgeoning TV empire was shielded by Craxi in the 1980s, has accused Milanese magistrates of trying to bring him down as they did his controversial predecessor. The Socialist prime minister of Italy from 1983 to 1987, Craxi was at the centre of the 1992-1994 Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) anti-corruption investigations carried out by Milan prosecutors. Fingered as the main culprit as Italy's political establishment crumbled, he fled to Tunisia to avoid prison in 1994 and died at his Tunisian villa in January 2000. Berlusconi's defiant statement came as the main centre-left group, the Democratic Party (PD), for the first time said they would vote to approve Berlusconi's arrest if a request with convincing evidence came in from prosecutors. As well as the Ruby and Mediaset trials, Berlusconi is under investigation on suspicion of bribing former Senator Sergio De Gregorio to switch parties in 2006, a move which destabilized the centre-left government and hastened its collapse in 2008. In another case, a Milan judge on March 7 sentenced him to a one-year jail term for involvement in the publication by his family newspaper Il Giornale of an illegally obtained wiretap concerning Italian insurance company Unipol's almost-successful bid to buy Banca Nazionale del Lavoro in 2005. The wiretap severely embarrassed then centre-left leader Piero Fassino. Berlusconi's PdL staged a demo in favour of their leader a week ago, stigmatised on Tuesday as "unprecedented" by Italian President Giorgio Napolitano. Napolitano called for calm on both sides, but tensions have continued to simmer. Meanwhile the leader of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, comedian Beppe Grillo, who holds the balance of power in parliament after last month's inconclusive general election, has urged Berlusconi to imitate Craxi, saying this would be better for the health of Italy and the ex-premier. "Berlusconi is scared of ending up like Craxi, but in reality it would be lucky for him," Grillo said on his blog. "He could escape to Tunisian beaches full of Rubies without having the daily ball-breaking of the magistrates. "He should let himself get arrested as soon as possible without any extenuating circumstances and take flight before the arrest. "He will gain in health terms. He will heal from his uveitis (an irritation and swelling of the uvea, the middle layer of the eye) and the Italians will finally heal from the orchitis that he has inflicted on them for 20 years". Orchitis is an inflammation of the testicles.

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