Key witness in Berlusconi sex trial set to testify on Monday

MILAN Sat Jan 12, 2013 11:49am EST

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gestures before the taping of the talk show ''Telecamere'' at Rai television in Rome January 11, 2013. REUTERS/Remo Casilli

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gestures before the taping of the talk show ''Telecamere'' at Rai television in Rome January 11, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Remo Casilli

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MILAN (Reuters) - The nightclub dancer who is the main witness in the sex trial of Italy's former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi will testify at a hearing in Milan on Monday, her lawyer said on Saturday.

Karima El Mahroug, better known by her stage name "Ruby the Heartstealer", was due to give evidence in the case last December but failed to show up, telling her lawyer she was on holiday in Mexico.

"Karima will be present in the courtroom on Monday," El Mahroug's lawyer Paola Boccardi told Reuters by phone, adding that her client returned to Italy on Friday.

Berlusconi, 76, who is seeking a fifth term in government at general elections in February, is accused of paying El Mahroug for sex when she was under 18, which is the minimum legal age for prostitution in Italy.

The billionaire media mogul denies all charges and El Mahroug, a Moroccan who is now 20, has said she never had sex with him.

In December a Milan judge set February 4 as the date for the final hearing in the sex trial, making a verdict possible before the elections scheduled for February 24-25.

A poll by the SWG company published on January 11 showed the center-left about 10 points in front of Silvio Berlusconi's center-right.

The trial, in which dozens of aspiring showgirls have described so-called "Bunga Bunga" parties at Berlusconi's residences, is the most sensational of his legal cases and has received huge media attention in Italy and abroad.

The center-right leader is also accused of abusing his powers when he was still prime minister to have El Mahroug released from police custody when she was briefly held over theft allegations.

He faces a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison but would not serve time unless the trial's verdict was confirmed after two appeals allowed by Italian law, usually a lengthy process.

According to a report in Il Corriere della Sera on Saturday, Berlusconi is considering asking that the sex case, as well as two other cases under way, be suspended ahead of the elections.

It was not possible to obtain an immediate comment from the offices of Berlusconi's lawyer Niccolo Ghedini.

Berlusconi, who controls Italy's biggest private TV broadcaster Mediaset, was driven from office as prime minister in 2011 at the height of the financial crisis.

His People of Freedom party backed the technocrat government of Mario Monti for a year before prompting its fall by withdrawing support in December.

(Reporting By Stephen Jewkes; Editing by Jason Webb)

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