MILAN Former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi will not face a verdict in a trial where he is charged with paying for sex with a juvenile prostitute until after elections next month, according to a decision by judges that could help his political comeback.
A new timetable of hearings set by Milan judges on Monday shows the last session in the trial will be held on March 11, well after the February 24-25 elections.
The decision will be welcomed by Berlusconi, who had feared a verdict in the middle of his campaign for a fifth term in office. Milan judges last week rejected his request to have the trial suspended until after the elections.
Berlusconi, who has surged in opinion polls in recent weeks but still lags the centre-left Democratic Party, is charged with paying for sex with a minor, and denies all charges.
The judges on Monday again rejected a bid by Berlusconi's lawyers to have the trial halted.
The lawyers, Niccolo Ghedini and Piero Longo, justified their new request by saying they are both standing for Berlusconi's party in the Veneto region and would not be able to campaign if the trial went ahead.
Judge Giulia Turri said the argument was "too generic".
According to the new timetable, the prosecutor in the case is expected to make her final arguments and request Berlusconi's to be convicted on February 11.
Berlusconi could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison but would not serve time unless he also lost the two appeals allowed by Italian law, usually a lengthy process.
The nightclub dancer at the centre of the case, 20 year-old Moroccan Karima El Mahroug, more widely known under her stage name "Ruby the Heartstealer", made a brief appearance in court last week.
Berlusconi is charged of paying for sex with her when she was under 18, which is a crime in Italy.
He is also accused of abusing the power of his office as prime minister to have her released from police custody when she was briefly held over separate theft allegations.
The next hearing in the case is scheduled for January 28.
(Reporting By Manuela D'Alessandro, Writing by Silvia Aloisi; Editing by Jon Boyle)