MILAN Dozens of parliamentarians from Silvio Berlusconi's center-right party demonstrated on Monday outside the Milan court hearing the former Italian prime minister's trial on charges of paying for sex with a minor.
The demonstration came after the judges ordered checks to be made on Berlusconi to verify his claim that an eye problem meant he was unable to attend a hearing on Monday. Following a visit by three doctors, including a senior eye specialist and a cardiologist, the hearing was postponed until Wednesday.
The checks add to an increasingly bitter legal and political battle around the 76-year-old media billionaire as parties struggle to deal with the aftermath of February's election which left none of them able to form a government.
"We consider this scandalous and not worthy of the normal functioning of a justice system in a civilized country. It is extremely serious," Angelino Alfano, secretary of Berlusconi's People of Freedom party.
Berlusconi, who faces a series of court hearings in separate trials this month, has been in the San Raffaele hospital in Milan since Friday because of an eye problem that he says has forced him to cancel a number of public appointments.
However, prosecutors argued that his stay in hospital was only a delaying tactic and on Saturday judges dismissed his argument that he was unable to attend a separate trial for tax fraud because of the same eye problem.
The head of Italy's National Magistrates Association, Rodolfo Sabelli rejected the accusation by Berlusconi's party that the judges actions were politically motivated.
"The magistracy is not a political organization, what magistrates do is not political and the objectives of magistrates are not political," he told SkyTG24 television.
Monday's hearing had been expected to be one of the final dates in the case, in which Berlusconi is charged with paying for sex with former nightclub dancer Karima El Mahroug, better known under her stage name "Ruby", when she was below the minimum age of 18.
Wednesday's hearing is expected to decide the timetable for the rest of the trial in light of Berlusconi's health problems.
A final ruling had been expected on March 18 but Berlusconi's lawyer Niccolo Ghedini said that hearing would be reserved for a prosecution summing up with another hearing on March 25 set aside for the defense.
The "Ruby" case was the most spectacular of a series of financial and sexual scandals which tarnished the image of Berlusconi's government in the months before it fell at the height of the euro zone debt crisis in late 2011.
He denies any wrongdoing and says he has been subject to politically motivated "judicial persecution" by what he says are left-wing judges who want to end his political career.
Earlier, the court rejected a request by Berlusconi's two main lawyers for the trial to be delayed because they had to attend a meeting of his People of Freedom party, which they both represent in parliament.
Berlusconi's center-right bloc is the second biggest in parliament but neither the center-left Democratic Party nor the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement of former comic Beppe Grillo want to form a coalition with his alliance.
In addition to the "Ruby" trial, Berlusconi is appealing against a four-year jail term for tax fraud in connection with the purchase of broadcasting rights by his television network Mediaset.
On Monday, prosecutors in Naples requested a fast-track judgment in a separate case in which Berlusconi is suspected of paying former Senator Sergio De Gregorio to change sides in 2006, a move which helped bring down the center-left government of former Prime Minister Romano Prodi.
(Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Louise Ireland)