MILAN - An Italian court on Monday turned down a request from former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's defence for his trial for underage sex to be suspended until after February elections.
Berlusconi's supporters immediately said the ruling constituted judicial interference in the campaign, while his critics said the 76-year-old billionaire was only running for office to stay out of jail.
The Moroccan-born exotic dancer at the centre of the case will not be testifying, after Berlusconi's lawyers said they were taking her off their list of witnesses.
Berlusconi, who has launched his sixth election bid in two decades, 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.
The 20-year-old, who used the working name "Ruby the Heart Stealer", arrived at the Milan courtroom through a scrum of photographers and cameramen.
She would have been testifying in court for the first time, after missing two previous court dates last month because of a long holiday in Mexico.
Judges said her written testimony, where she described wild "Bunga Bunga" parties hosted by Berlusconi, will still be considered in the case.
The trial is only the latest in a series of legal proceedings against the irrepressible media tycoon, who has managed to avoid any jail time.
In October, the three-time premier was convicted of tax fraud and sentenced to one year in prison and a five-year ban from holding public office.
That sentence has been suspended pending his appeal.
Niccolo Ghedini, Berlusconi's lawyer and a member of parliament from his People of Freedom party, reacted angrily to Monday's court ruling.
"With this decision, the court has interfered massively in the election campaign," he said.
In making his request, Ghedini had said the trial should not be "exploited" for political ends.
He said the defence will ask for a suspension at all future hearings, but that he expected a verdict to come before the February 24-25 elections.
Prosecutors are expected to deliver their final arguments at a hearing on January 28 and the defence on February 4.
Another hearing would then be held for a verdict.
Prosecutor Ilda Boccassini told the court: "A trial cannot be suspended because of a campaign."
Elections "are not a legal question to be considered by this court," she said.
Prosecutors have accused the defence of deliberately trying to draw out the sex trial to avoid a verdict before the general election.
Antonio Di Pietro, a former anti-corruption judge and leader of the Italy of Values party, said Berlusconi was "being a candidate to avoid trials."
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.
"I never had an intimate relationship of any kind with her," he said in October in his second appearance at the trial, which began in April 2011.
"I was sure she was 24, as she herself said."
El-Mahroug has also denied having sex with Berlusconi but was recorded in a leaked telephone wiretap telling a friend that he had said to her: "Ruby I'll give you anything you want, I'll turn you into gold, just hide everything."
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