Berlusconi's wiretap trial postponed until after elections

MILAN Thu Jan 17, 2013 11:38pm IST

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gestures before the taping of the talk show ''Telecamere'' at Rai television in Rome January 11, 2013. REUTERS/Remo Casilli

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gestures before the taping of the talk show ''Telecamere'' at Rai television in Rome January 11, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Remo Casilli

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MILAN (Reuters) - An Italian court on Thursday agreed to postpone Silvio Berlusconi's trial for making public the taped contents of a confidential phone call, until after an election next month in which he is a candidate.

Former prime minister Berlusconi, accused of leaking the information in a case related to a 2005 banking scandal, is facing two other trials for alleged tax fraud and paying for sex with an underage prostitute.

Prosecutors in the wiretap case have asked for a one-year jail term for the media tycoon. A verdict is now expected on March 7, after parliamentary elections due on February 24-25, judge Oscar Magi said. It was previously scheduled for February 7.

Earlier this week lawyers for the 76-year-old billionaire failed to have the "Ruby" sex trial postponed, after they argued it could be used by opposition parties to damage his chances of re-election.

Thursday's case stems from allegations that Berlusconi pushed for the publication of a transcript of a wiretap in daily newspaper Il Giornale, which is owned by his brother Paolo, in order to damage a political opponent.

The taped phone call related to a bid by insurer Unipol to buy bank Banca Nazionale del Lavoro in 2005 which eventually fell through, prompting an investigation for possible financial crimes by some of the dealmakers.

In the conversation Piero Fassino, then Berlusconi's main political rival as leader of the biggest centre-left party, can be heard asking the head of Unipol: "So, do we own a bank?".

The conversation, which did not suggest that the politician committed any crime, was kept by prosecutors investigating possible illicit interference in the failed takeover.

The head of the company hired by the magistrates to record the conservation has been convicted of stealing the audio tape and making it available to Berlusconi and his brother to publish.

In a hearing on Tuesday, Berlusconi's lawyers asked for the former prime minister to be cleared of the charges of pressuring Il Giornale to print the transcript to damage the centre left.

Berlusconi has denied any wrongdoing and repeatedly said politically-motivated magistrates in Milan are persecuting him with cooked-up prosecutions.

Berlusconi also denies charges of paying for sex with a minor. That case's final hearing is scheduled for February 4, with a verdict likely to come before the election.

An appeal against a tax fraud conviction for which Berlusconi was sentenced to four years' jail in October has not yet started.

In the parliamentary election campaign, Berlusconi is leading a centre-right coalition currently polling 26.3 percent against a centre-left coalition on 37.5 percent.

(Reporting by Manuela D'Alessandro; writing by Antonella Ciancio; editing by Andrew Roche)

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