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Silvio Berlusconi's sex trial resumes

Premier Silvio Berlusconi's defence lawyers fought to get his sensational under-age prostitution trial moved out of the criminal courts today as the Italian leader battled for his political future after suffering a withering defeat in local elections nationwide.

Berlusconi's lawyer argued that the Italian leader was convinced that a Moroccan teen at the centre of the scandal was indeed the niece of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak when he tried to get her out of trouble last May, and therefore was acting within his official duties and should be judged by a parliamentary body.

The trial resumed after a two-month break and the morning after late-night celebrations marking the defeat of Berlusconi's candidates for mayor in his northern stronghold of Milan and in trash-plagued Naples. The results revealed a weakened Italian leader and heightened the impression that he is too distracted by his legal woes to govern effectively.

Berlusconi was in Romania on a two-day state visit, and did not attend the trial. But he was eager to combat any impression that the election defeats posed a political threat to his governing coalition.

Not only did Berlusconi's candidates lose in major races like Milan and Naples, so did candidates of his ally the Northern League in northern cities like Novara where they have thrived.

"I had a meeting to schedule my funeral, but I am too busy in the coming days so we'll have to delay it," Berlusconi joked with journalists in Bucharest.

Despite Berlusconi's famous self-deprecation, commentators today insisted that the election results showed a shift in the way Italians perceived Berlusconi's leadership.

"In 15 days, the face of Italy has changed. The transformation is deep and radical," political analyst Stefano Folli wrote in il Sole 24 Ore.

Berlusconi, who for a month campaigned that the races were a test of his government, has pledged that his government will continue after receiving assurances from the Northern League, and he has pledged to speed up fiscal reforms supported by the majority.

"It is all legitimate," Folli said, "but not very convincing."

In court, Berlusconi's lawyer, Niccolo Ghedini, argued that Berlusconi's call to police to get a Moroccan teen out of custody was aimed at avoiding a diplomatic incident because he believed she was Mubarak's niece. The teen, Karima el-Mahroug, better known as Ruby, was picked up on suspicion of theft.

With the argument, Ghedini is trying to persuade the court that the Council of Ministers and not the Milan criminal court is the correct venue for the trial, since Berlusconi was acting in his official business. The calls to release the teen are the basis of a charge that Berlusconi used his influence to cover up criminal acts.

Prosecutors — and the judge who ordered a speedy trial without a preliminary hearing — have rejected the argument, saying he was trying to hide his relationship to the Moroccan teen, who was 17 at the time of the alleged encounters at his villa near Milan.

Berlusconi's defence submitted 16 formal objections on the second day of the trial, displaying to the court six stacks of documents ready to submit. They also are challenging the decision to skip the preliminary hearing, as well as the use of some wiretaps and the premier's private banking information in the investigation.