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Court rejects Berlusconi bid to put sex trial on hold

Judges in Italy have rejected former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s request to suspend a trial in which he is accused of paying for sex with a minor. The defense says the proceedings may hamper his electoral chances.

The court in Milan turned down the request Monday from Berlusconi's lawyers to have the trial put on hold until after the elections at the end of February.

The defense team has said that a verdict ahead of the poll might hinder Berlusconi in his efforts to close the gap between his center-right coalition and his center-left opponents.

"The request to suspend the trial cannot be accepted," the judges ruled after four hours of deliberation.

Berlusconi's lawyer Niccolo Ghedini said the request was to avoid the proceedings being "exploited" for political gain. However, prosecutor Ilda Boccassini said that the prospect of elections should not be a matter of consideration for the court.

"I ask that this trial be allowed to go ahead because a trial cannot be suspended because of a campaign," said Boccassini.

The decision came on the same day that a key defense witness who was to have testified - the woman Berlusconi is alleged to have paid to sleep with when she was aged just 17 - appeared at the court for the first time.

In December, Moroccan-born dancer Karima el-Mahroug, better known as "Ruby," twice failed to appear at the court, and was subsequently fined. Judges in the latest hearing in Milan decided it was not necessary to hear her testimony, while the defense team chose to remove her from its list of witnesses. Both Berlusconi and el-Mahroug deny that any sexual contact took place.

rc/dr (AP, AFP, Reuters)