2 French football stars on trial for sex with underage prostitute
PARIS — The trial of French football stars Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema for having sex with an underage prostitute opened Tuesday without the two defendants or the woman at the center of the scandal.
In a case that has cast light on a murky world of seamy Parisian nightclubs frequented by some of the French capital’s showbiz set, Bayern Munich winger Ribery, 30, and Real Madrid forward Benzema, 25, face up to three years in prison and a maximum 45,000 euro ($55,000) fine if convicted.
Legal experts say such sentences are unlikely but convictions of any description would have potentially serious implications for the two players’ futures, with their clubs and sponsors likely to face calls to sever ties with them.
Ribery’s brother-in-law has also been charged with soliciting a minor for sex. Five other accused face charges of aggravated pimping, a charge that carries a maximum prison term of ten years, in a trial that is scheduled to run until June 26.
Although the age of consent is 15 in France, paying for sex with anyone under 18 is a crime.
Ribery and Benzema, neither of whom have been required to attend the trial, both contest the charges against them.
Ribery has admitted having sex with Zahia Dehar, the woman at the center of what is known as the Zahia case, after she was flown to Munich in 2009 as a “present” for his 26th birthday, but insists he could not have known she was not 18 at the time.
Benzema, who is accused of paying for sex with Dehar a year earlier when she was 16, denies that any encounter took place.
Dehar, now 21, became a celebrity of sorts following the scandal and has since established herself as a designer of luxury lingerie, thanks partly to being befriended and championed by fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, who has described her as a quintessential French courtesan.
Dehar, who will not be required to give evidence during the trial, has testified that she had paid-for sex with both players but has said she lied to them about her age.
“There is no way they could have known (that she was underage),” she told French television station TF1 at the weekend.
Andre Dando, the examining magistrate who took charge of the investigation, disagrees with that view and rejected a recommendation by the public prosecutor that the charges against Ribery and Benzema be dropped.
Dehar’s alleged encounters with the two French internationals came to light after she was arrested in connection with a police investigation into the now defunct Zaman Cafe, a late-night nightclub close to the Champs Elysees that attracted a curious mix of reality TV stars, criminals and dozens of prostitutes.
Brothers Elie and Georges Farhat, who ran the club, are among the accused, as is Abousofiane Moustaid, a former reality TV performer who had allegedly developed a sideline as a pimp to the stars.
He is said to have introduced Dehar to the footballers and there has been speculation in the French media that other well-known figures were among her clients.
She was mysteriously unable to recall any names other than those of the footballers and neither the police nor the magistrate insisted on her doing so, according to Le Monde.
News of the investigation into Ribery and Benzema broke just before France’s disastrous 2010 World Cup campaign, which featured unprecedented bickering within the squad that culminated in a brief strike by the players.
Forward Nicolas Anelka was sent home for abusing coach Raymond Domenech and France, one of the favorites, crashed out at the group stage of the tournament.
The badly tarnished image of “Les Bleus” has yet to fully recover from what has become known as the Knysna fiasco after the name of the squad’s South African base.
Ribery, said to be one of the ringleaders of the rebellion against Domenech, was given a three-match ban after the tournament but has since been welcomed back into the fold.
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