A Milan court is preparing to decide whether Silvio Berlusconi paid for sex with an underage prostitute and abused his powers to cover it up, with the former Italian prime minister facing a jail sentence of up to six years.

Monday's verdict, which could have major political repercussions, closes a two-year trial which has captivated attention on billionaire Berlusconi's alleged "bunga bunga" sex parties in his private villa outside Milan while he was premier in 2010.

Berlusconi, 76, is accused of paying for sex with Karima El-Mahroug, a former nightclub dancer also known as "Ruby the Heartstealer", when she was under 18, and of abuse of office to get her released from police custody on a separate occasion.

He denies all wrongdoing and says he is being persecuted by leftist prosecutors.

Berlusconi says the alleged sex parties in a basement room of his home were elegant dinners where the female guests performed "burlesque" shows.

Neither Berlusconi nor El-Mahroug were expected in the court in Milan for the verdict.

Fate in the balance

Berlusconi's fate lies in the hands of three female judges. Whatever the outcome, no sentence will be enforced until the appeals process has been exhausted - a lengthy process which can take years in Italy's famously complex justice system.

If he is found guilty, it could weaken Prime Minister Enrico Letta's left-right coalition government which depends on Berlusconi's support for its survival.

Several members of Berlusconi's People of Freedom party have urged him to withdraw his support, and he may be more tempted to do so if he decides his backing for Letta is giving him no legal protection.

Prosecutors say Berlusconi should serve one year in jail for paying for sex with a minor and should be given five years' imprisonment and a life ban from holding public office for the abuse of office charge, which they consider more serious.

Both Berlusconi and El-Mahroug deny having sex together, but Ilda Boccassini, prosecutor, insisted in May that Berlusconi "had sex with her and knew she was a minor".

Boccassini said El-Mahroug was Berlusconi's "favourite" and had not admitted their relationship only because she had received as much as $5.8m.

El-Mahroug was "part of a prostitution system set up for the personal sexual satisfaction of the defendant", she said.

In May 2010, Berlusconi, then Italy's prime minister, called a Milan police station to instruct officials to release El Mahroug, who was being held on suspicion of stealing a bracelet.

A Brazilian prostitute who lived with El-Mahroug had called Berlusconi on his mobile phone to tell him she had been arrested.

Liaison alleged

When El-Mahroug was detained on charges of stealing, Berlusconi "was forced to intervene and abuse his office" to stop her spilling details of their relationship, Boccassini said.

His defence claims he believed El-Mahroug was the niece of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and wanted to avoid a diplomatic incident.

El-Mahroug later changed her testimony, saying she had earlier lied to investigators about the strippers who had "bodily stimulated" Berlusconi and the amount of money she had received from him.

Berlusconi's lawyers called for the charges to be thrown out "because no crime has been committed".

A Milan court last month upheld his conviction for tax fraud, confirming the punishment of a year in prison and a five-year ban from public office which is frozen pending a second appeal.

Three of Berlusconi's friends - a show-business agent, a former network anchor and a former regional assemblywoman - are on trial on pimping charges in a separate trial linked to the case.

Prosecutors in Naples have also requested a trial against Berlusconi on allegations that he bribed a leftist senator with three million euros to join his party and topple a past centre-left cabinet.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies