MILAN -- A Milan court fined a Moroccan woman at the center of Silvio Berlusconi's sex-for-hire scandal (euro) 500 ($650) on Monday for failing to appear as a witness twice at the former premier's trial. It ordered her to testify in January.
Karima el-Mahroug, also known as Ruby, is the last witness to be called in the sensational trial that accuses Berlusconi of having paid for sex with el-Mahroug when she was 17, and then trying to cover it up. Both deny having had sex.
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The court ordered el-Mahroug, who is in Mexico on vacation, to testify on Jan. 14, confirming the necessity of her testimony.
Prosecutors have accused the defense, which called el-Mahroug as a witness, of engaging in a strategy to delay a verdict -- which has included calling witnesses who have failed to show. Italian law does not carry particularly strict penalties against witnesses who fail to appear, and in some cases the court may decide their participation is not essential.
Prosecutors are scheduled to give their closing arguments on Jan. 28, followed by the defense on Feb. 4.
That leaves room for the verdict to be delivered in February, just as Italy is headed toward a national election. The 76-year-old Berlusconi has flirted with running again, but most recently has said he would step aside if Premier Mario Monti, who runs a technical government that replaced Berlusconi's, decides to run as a moderate.
In a weekend interview, Berlusconi apologized for his now-infamous "bunga bunga" parties, saying he was lonely after having split from his second wife. Veronica Laria left him in 2008, citing alleged dalliances with young women.
"I need to apologize. It was a period when I was feeling alone. I was divorced, my mother was dead, my sister, too, my children were traveling around the world, and someone said to distract myself with some evenings," Berlusconi said.
He also revealed he is engaged to a woman almost 50 years his junior, and says that "finally I feel less alone."
The media baron said Sunday his engagement to 28-year-old Francesca Pascale -- who is part of a support group called "Silvio, we miss you" -- is "official."
Newspapers described Berlusconi's appearance on Canale 5 -- one of his television networks -- as an attempt to boost falling approval rates ahead of an election expected in February. No date for the vote has been set yet.
His center-right party, which has dominated Italian politics for the last two decades, is showing a 15 percent approval rating.