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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 have said 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 200 or so Berlusconi supporters also sang the national anthem outside the court.

Judges had ordered medical experts 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 experts later concluded his absence was justified and the court decided to adjourn the trial to Wednesday to set a new calendar of hearings.

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.

The court was to have heard the prosecution's sentencing requests on Monday.

A verdict in the trial on the alleged crimes dating back to 2010 when Berlusconi was still prime minister 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.

He is unlikely to spend any actual time behind bars, however, as the law is generally lenient for convicts over 70.

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 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).

"Naturally I accepted money from Berlusconi," De Gregorio said in a recent interview deeply embarrassing to the ex-premier. "By the way, I already told the judges this."

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.

Berlusconi won the subsequent elections handily.

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-0