Berlusconi's bid to halt tax fraud trial rejected again

MILAN Fri Feb 1, 2013 11:16am EST

MILAN Feb 1 (Reuters) - A Milan court on Friday rejected a new request from Silvio Berlusconi's lawyers to suspend a tax fraud trial involving the purchase of broadcasting rights by his Mediaset media group until after the Feb. 24-25 election.

The decision prompted a defiant response from the former prime minister and his centre-right party, who described as "scandalous" what they see as an interference with the parliamentary race.

"It hurts my heart to see how much money is spent on laughable issues," Berlusconi said at a news conference in Rome referring to the court's work, brandishing a timetable of court hearings he said were designed to stop him campaigning.

The 76-year-old media tycoon, who has served four times as prime minister, is appealing against a previous court ruling in the case which in October sentenced him to four years in jail.

Berlusconi, who has surged in opinion polls but lags the centre-left Democratic Party, is also facing a trial on charges of paying for sex with an underage prostitute and a third for alleged leaking of a confidential phone call to the media.

No verdicts are expected soon, but prosecutors may seek a sentence in these trials days before the vote.

Berlusconi has made an astonishing comeback over the last month through a blitz of radio and television appearances.

He is leading a centre-right coalition polling 27.8 percent against a centre-left coalition on 32.8 percent.

The tax fraud trial will continue on Feb. 8. (Reporting by Manuela D'Alessandro; Editing by Stephen Powell)