MILAN -- Judges hearing ex-Premier Silvio Berlusconi's sex-for-hire trial on Monday pushed back the verdict and the sentencing in the case until after Italy's Feb. 24-25 national election.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, pressed to make sure they can give their closing arguments, which include their sentencing demands, before the vote, in which Berlusconi is heading a center-right coalition.
That coalition is facing the center-left Democratic Party, which is leading in the polls, and centrist parties united under a financial reform agenda led by Premier Mario Monti. Berlusconi has long accused Milan magistrates of mounting politically inspired campaign against him – an allegation they deny.
The three-judge panel's decision last week not to suspend the trial to allow Berlusconi to campaign put the case on course to wrap up before the vote. But the judges on Monday set new hearings for March 4 and March 11, citing technical reasons related to the reassignment of one of the judges. The panel again refused to suspend the trial for the campaign.
The judicial panel left open whether the prosecutors' final arguments would be made March 4 as it requested, or Feb. 11 as prosecutors are seeking.
The court also refused to hear five defense witnesses, saying they were superfluous to the case, including actor George Clooney and Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo. Clooney has said publicly he only met with Berlusconi once to discuss help for Darfur, while Ronaldo has issued a statement saying he has never met the woman at the center of the scandal.
Berlusconi is accused of having paid for sex with an underage Moroccan teen Karima el-Mahroug, better known as Ruby, during the infamous `'bunga-bunga" parties at his villa near Milan, and then trying to cover it up. Both deny sexual contact.
El-Mahroug's mother will testify for the defense on Jan. 28.
In a separate case, Berlusconi's appeals trial challenging a conviction of tax fraud and his four-year sentence also is under way. Judges have refused to suspend that trial, saying since the verdict is expected after the election it is unlikely to disrupt the campaign.
However, a judge hearing a third case involving the publication of wiretaps in a Berlusconi-owned newspaper did suspend that case until after the national vote. Prosecutors have asked for a 1-year sentence against the ex-premier, who is also a billionaire media mogul, and for three years and three months for his brother Paolo Berlusconi, the publisher of the Il Giornale newspaper.