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Court rejects request to freeze Berlusconi sex trial

Oct 3, 2011, 8:26 a.m.
Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi attends during a debate at the lower house of parliament in Rome in Rome September 22, 2011. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

MILAN (Reuters) - Milan judges Monday rejected a request by Silvio Berlusconi's lawyers to put on hold a trial where he is accused of paying for sex with an underage prostitute, in a new legal setback for the Italian prime minister.

Berlusconi's lawyers had requested that the trial be suspended until next February, when Italy's top court is due to decide which judges have jurisdiction in the case.

A suspension would have bought time for the billionaire media tycoon, who faces a string of trials and scandals and is also fighting to stave off a market crisis threatening to send Italy's debt sliding out of control.

Berlusconi's lawyers have said that a Milan court has no right to preside over the case and that the 75 year-old premier should be tried by a special tribunal for ministers.

Parliament, where Berlusconi's center-right coalition has a narrow but stable majority, has brought the matter before the Constitutional Court, which will start examining the case on February 7.

Berlusconi denies any wrongdoing and accuses Milan magistrates of waging a politically-motivated campaign to oust him from power.

The prostitution trial centers on accusations that he paid to have sex with Moroccan-born teen-ager Karima El Mahroug, a nightclub dancer known by the stage name of Ruby, when she was 17 years old, under the legal age limit.

Berlusconi is also accused of telephoning Milan police officers last May to have her released from custody when she was detained over unrelated theft allegations, in order to cover up the scandal.

Berlusconi says he did not have sex with El Mahroug. He has acknowledged making the phone call to police, in which he said El Mahroug was the granddaughter of then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, but says he did not exert any improper influence.

In a further blow for Berlusconi, a judge in a separate but related trial ordered Monday three of his associates to stand trial on charges of procuring prostitutes for him, including underage girls, a judicial source told Reuters.

Among them is Nicole Minetti, Berlusconi's former dental hygienist and now a member of the Lombardy regional council. The trial, also due to be held in Milan, will start on November 21. All three defendants deny the charges.

(Reporting by Manuela D'Alessandro, writing by Silvia Aloisi, Editing by Barry Moody)

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