Potential black Friday for Berlusconi as legal troubles brew

Former Italian premier Sivlio Berlusconi was back in the legal spotlight on Friday, with a verdict expected in the trial of three allies accused of procuring him prostitutes, while another court examines a bribery allegation against him.

The billionaire is mired in a series of legal woes which political experts warn could have wider repercussions on Italy's fragile grand coalition government, which relies on the support of the media magnate's centre-right party.

President Giorgio Napolitano made an explicit reference to Berlusconi's troubles on Thursday when he called for responsibility from all sides to ensure political stability in the eurozone's third largest economy.

In June, Berlusconi was sentenced to seven years in jail for paying for sex with an underage prostitute and abusing his power to hide the liaison. Punishment was suspended to allow for a lengthy appeals process, but the case has come back to haunt him less than a month later.

Prosecutors have called for seven-year prison sentences for failed showbusiness agent Lele Mora, showgirl-turned-politician Nicole Minetti and television network host Emilio Fede for recruiting call girls to attend raunchy parties in Berlusconi's Milan villa.

Among the girls allegedly recruited by the three was the underage prostitute in question: Moroccan-born Karima El-Mahroug, the then 17-year-old nicknamed "Ruby the Heart Stealer" with whom Berlusconi was found guilty of sleeping.

Prosecutor Pietro Forno insists Mora, Minetti and Fede arranged "orgies" at Berlusconi's mansion and in his summing up speech in May he cited the tycoon's ex-wife Veronica Lario who accused her then husband of consorting with "young virgins".

His colleague Antonio Sangermano said the three were like "tasters of fine wine" and had obtained financial advantages from Berlusconi because "they know all the secrets" of those nights.

"They carried out a sort of exam of the capacities of the young women and then injected them into the circuit of soirees," Sangermano said.

Minetti was also an active participant and "performed sexual acts for money," he said.

All three deny the charges -- just as Berlusconi and Ruby denied ever having had sex -- and the verdict is expected later Friday.

Meanwhile, in the southern Italian city of Naples, judges were holding a preliminary hearing on charges that the 76-year-old magnate in 2006 bribed a left-wing senator with three million euros to join his party and topple the cabinet of then-prime minister Romano Prodi.

Prosecutors in May alleged Berlusconi paid off senator Sergio De Gregorio after elections in 2006 which Prodi won by just a handful of votes.

A few months later, De Gregorio crossed the aisle and joined the Berlusconi opposition in a move that helped bring down Prodi in 2008, and the subsequent elections were won handily by the media magnate.

The senator has confessed to the judges and the media that he pocketed the bribe and the indictment hearing is being held to decide whether or not to implement the charges and begin a new trial against Berlusconi.

The investigation is based in Naples since that was De Gregorio's seat, but Berlusconi's lawyers have insisted the court is not competent to rule on the issue and the case should be moved to the capital.

Berlusconi was not present in court on Friday due to a vote in the Senate on a motion against Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, following the controversial deportation of the wife and daughter of dissident oligarch Kazakh Mukhtar Ablyazov.

Alfano, who says he was not informed about the deportation, is Berlusconi's protege and can expect the magnate to rise to his defence.

However, the three-time former premier may soon be preoccupied with fighting to save his own skin.

On July 30 Italy's highest court is expected to begin preparing to rule on a conviction against him for tax fraud connected to his Mediaset empire. Should it uphold the ruling, Berlusconi could see himself banned from holding public office and forced to retire from the political scene.