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Italy's Berlusconi faces verdict in underage sex trial

A combo shows file photos of Karima El Mahroug of Morocco posing during a photocall at the Karma disco in Milan November 14, 2010 and Italy'
A combo shows file photos of Karima El Mahroug of Morocco posing during a photocall at the Karma disco in Milan November 14, 2010 and Italy'

By Silvia Aloisi

MILAN (Reuters) - Judges in a Milan court retired to consider their verdict on Monday in a trial in which former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is accused of paying for sex with a minor and abusing the powers of his office to cover it up.

The verdict, which could undermine the fragile coalition government if it goes against Berlusconi, closes a two-year trial that has mesmerized Italy with its accounts of the alleged "bunga bunga" sex parties at the billionaire's private villa outside Milan while he was premier in 2010.

The panel of three judges, all women, were expected to announce their verdict in the afternoon.

Prosecutors had asked for a six-year jail term and a ban on holding public office.

With two appeals possible, it could be years before a verdict is final. However, if the 76-year-old is found guilty it could weaken Prime Minister Enrico Letta's left-right coalition government, which depends on the center-right leader's support.

Several members of Berlusconi's People of Freedom party have urged him to withdraw his backing, and he may be more tempted to do so if he decides it is giving him no legal protection.

"He is expecting it to go against him, he has been telling everyone that the judges are prejudiced," said James Walston, politics professor at the American University of Rome.

Berlusconi is accused of paying for sex with former nightclub dancer Karima El Mahroug, alias "Ruby the Heartstealer", when she was under 18, and of abuse of office to secure her release from police custody on a separate occasion.

He denies all wrongdoing and says he is being persecuted by left-wing prosecutors. He says the alleged sex parties were elegant dinners where the female guests performed "burlesque" shows. El Mahroug denies having sex with Berlusconi.

Prosecutors say Berlusconi should be sentenced to a year in jail for paying for sex with a minor, and to five years' imprisonment plus a life ban from holding public office for abuse of office.

CALL TO POLICE

In May 2010, the then-prime minister called a Milan police station to instruct officials to release El Mahroug, who was being held on suspicion of stealing a bracelet.

A Brazilian prostitute who lived with El Mahroug had called the premier on his mobile phone to tell him she had been arrested.

Berlusconi's lawyers say he made the call to avoid a diplomatic incident because he believed that El Mahroug, who is actually Moroccan, was the grand-daughter of Hosni Mubarak, then the Egyptian president. The prosecution says he was anxious to cover up the relations he had with her at his sex parties.

The media tycoon has recently used his own television stations to promote his version of events, with his flagship Canale 5 channel broadcasting a prime-time documentary on the so-called "Ruby Trial".

The case is only part of Berlusconi's legal problems. Last month an appeals court upheld a four-year jail sentence against him for orchestrating a tax fraud scheme in his business dealings - leaving him just one more appeal, at the Supreme Court, which could come within a year.

Despite Berlusconi's professions of loyalty to Letta, many analysts believe he will eventually prefer to gamble on fresh elections, in which he could potentially become prime minister once again, rather than risk a definitive sentence.

Even if Berlusconi opts to keep backing the government, a guilty verdict would make parts of Letta's center-left Democratic Party (PD) highly uneasy and increase the coalition's instability, said Giovanni Orsina, professor of contemporary history at Rome's Luiss University.

"The PD would be in the same majority with a person who has been condemned in the first degree for juvenile prostitution, which is not a trivial issue," he said. "It would add up to a difficult situation."

(Writing by Gavin Jones; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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