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Legal storm intensifies against Italy's Berlusconi

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Italy's billionaire former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was in legal trouble again on Monday, suspected of exaggerating an eye infection to delay one trial against him and facing fresh charges of bribery.

The 76-year-old has been in hospital in Milan since Friday but prosecutors say it is all a ruse to put off the onslaught as several cases finally begin to catch up with him.

The drama intensified when lawmakers from Berlusconi's centre-right People of Freedom party marched into the Milan court building in protest.

They called for Berlusconi's trial for allegedly having sex with an underage prostitute and abusing the powers of his office to be suspended.

"I think there is a judicial plot against Berlusconi," said Laura Ravetto, a senior party official who joined the protest.

The small group of Berlusconi's supporters also sang the national anthem outside the court.

Judges had ordered external doctors to be sent into the clinic where Berlusconi is staying, after prosecutors said an eye infection was not a legitimate excuse for suspending a trial.

The trial, which began almost exactly two years ago, had already been put on hold on Friday because Berlusconi said he was suffering uveitis, an irritation of the uvea.

His doctors say Berlusconi also has hypertension.

Prosecutors had been due to present their final arguments and make their sentencing requests on the alleged crimes dating back to 2010 when Berlusconi was still prime minister.

The results of the medical checks should be known in the coming hours. A verdict in the trial had been expected this month but that is now in doubt.

The flamboyant media baron and three-time prime minister is accused of having sex for money with the then 17-year-old Karima El-Mahroug, an exotic dancer nicknamed Ruby the Heart Stealer.

Berlusconi risks up to three years in prison on that charge and up to 12 years for allegedly putting pressure on police to have her released from custody when she was arrested for petty theft.

Both Berlusconi and El-Mahroug deny having sex.

Berlusconi is also appealing a tax fraud conviction linked to his business empire. That hearing was allowed to go ahead on Saturday and a ruling is expected this month.

Last week the scandal-fraught billionaire was also convicted over the publication of a police wiretap of a rival politician in a newspaper he owns and sentenced to one year in jail.

Prosecutors meanwhile lodged a request for Berlusconi to face a fourth trial over accusations that he bribed a left-wing senator in 2006.

Prosecutors say Berlusconi paid senator Sergio De Gregorio three million euros ($3.9 million).

The case goes back to elections won by a centre-left coalition led by Romano Prodi by just a handful of votes.

A few months later, De Gregorio switched parties to join the Berlusconi opposition in a move that helped bring down Prodi in 2008.

The subsequent elections were won handily by Berlusconi.

The investigation is being handled by prosecutors in the southern city of Naples, which was De Gregorio's seat.

Berlusconi has often been accused of buying votes or bribing lawmakers, but this is the first time he is officially under investigation for allegedly corrupting a politician.

Prosecutors are pressing for "immediate trial" under a special procedure in which the judge has to decide within at most 10 days whether the trial should go ahead.

If the judge agrees, the rules allow for the scrapping of preliminary hearings that could last more than a year.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130311/legal-storm-intensifies-against-italys-berlusconi