Berlusconi sex-for-hire trial reaches final stage on Monday

MILAN (AP) - Former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi's sex-for-hire trial entered the final stretch on Monday with a Milan prosecutor making long-delayed closing arguments.

Berlusconi is accused of paying for sex with an underage Moroccan prostitute at a lavish party he hosted while he was premier and then trying to cover it up. The sensational trial reopened just days after Berlusconi's four-year sentence for tax fraud was confirmed by an appeals court, a damaging verdict that nonetheless cannot be enforced until all appeals are exhausted.

The prostitution trial had been delayed by more than two months for elections, an eye ailment for which Berlusconi was hospitalised and a change of venue request that was denied.

Prosecutor Ilda Boccassini told the court that the young women invited to the former premier's parties ''were part of a system of prostitution organised for the pleasure of Silvio Berlusconi." She said there was ''no doubt" that it was known to the organisers of the parties that the young Moroccan woman, Karima el-Mahroug, known by the nickname ''Ruby Heart Stealer," was underage when they included her on the guest list.

Ms Boccassini, who is continuing final arguments opened by a colleague in early March, will wrap with sentencing demands later on Monday. Barring delays, a verdict could come by the end of the month.

Under Italian law, it is illegal to pay for sex with a minor under 18 years of age. Ms Boccassini pointed out that it was Berlusconi's own government that had raised the age from 17 - el-Mahroug's age at the time of their alleged encounters. Both Berusconi and el-Mahroug have denied any sexual contact.

Ms Boccassini described el-Mahroug as a troubled adolescent who had run away from her parents and foster homes and had been formally accused of petty theft of wallets and expensive jewellery on several occasions. Despite not having a job, el-Mahroug wore designer clothes and at times had as much as 1,000 euros in cash, the prosecutor said.

''We have no doubt that Ruby prostituted herself" before coming in contact with anyone in Berlusconi's circle in February 2010, Ms Boccassini said.

The two trials have raised questions about Berlusconi's political future at a delicate moment for Italy. He headed the centre-right coalition that finished second in February elections and which is in an uneasy coalition with the centre-left, but he has no formal government post.

If the tax fraud verdict and sentence is confirmed, it includes a five-year ban on public office. A final level of appeal is pending, and could be delivered before the end of the year.

In Italy, defendants are legally considered innocent until all appeals are exhausted, and Berlusconi's lawyers are expected to appeal the tax fraud case to the nation's highest Court of Cassation once the reasoning for the decision is published.