De Niro fury over vice case that echoes the movies

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THE ACTOR Robert De Niro yesterday sued a French judge who questioned him on Tuesday about his involvement with an international prostitution agency.

French judicial sources say that the actor is regarded as a potential witness, not a suspect, in a case which already reads like a plot from an implausible airport novel. It is alleged that Mr De Niro was approached by the agency about a possible sexual encounter with a teenaged girl but that no meeting ever took place.

If De Niro is not a suspect, his lawyer, Georges Kiejman, asked, why did agents of the French vice squad, in effect arrest him outside his hotel in Paris on Tuesday? He had already offered his full co-operation. Why were the press immediately informed, although the investigation is supposed under French law to be secret?

Mr Kiejman brought actions yesterday against the judge leading the investigation for violating the privacy and right to freedom of movement of his client. He accused the judge, Frederic N'Guyen, of flagrant publicity seeking and personally leaking news of the actor's questioning to the media.

Mr N'Guyen's 15-month investigation has already led him into legal and diplomatic murky waters, involving Saudi and Gulf princes, secret agents, Hollywood actresses, sports stars, high-class prostitution and arms contracts.

Six people, including the former Polish tennis star Wotjek Fibak, have been placed under formal examination - a step short of a charge - for their involvement with a global call-girl ring run from an apartment in Paris. Mr Fibak faces a possible charge of rape, after a young woman claimed that he paid the agency to have sex with her against her will. He denies the accusation.

Several other witnesses have told the judge that - in a deal brokered by the agency - an American actress accepted $1m for a sexual encounter in the South of France with a member of a Gulf royal family. The newspaper Le Figaro reported yesterday that Judge N'Guyen would like to question Brigitte Nielsen, the actress and former wife of Sylvester Stallone, about these allegations. Ms Nielsen has already been linked to the story and has adamantly denied it.

The investigation began in October 1996 with the routine bugging and phone tapping of a suspected prostitution ring, operating from the 16th arrondissement, one of the wealthiest areas of Paris. The inquiry led to the arrest in January last year of a Swedish former model, Annika Brumarck, the apparent head of the organisation. Other arrests included a photographer, Jean-Pierre Bourgeois, who specialised in glamour shots for upmarket men's magazines, and a Lebanese businessman called Nazihabdulatis Al Ladki.

Investigators seized diaries, records and address books with the names of young women, and their clients, from all over the world, from Britain to Indonesia by way of the United States. Mr Al Ladki also revealed the names of other alleged clients, including Saudi and Gulf princes. He told investigators that the service had been used for many years by big business, especially the French arms industry, as a way of sweetening contracts with Arab states. The previous French government tried to block the investigation because of its possible impact on arms sales. The socialist-led coalition which took power last June have given Judge N'Guyen more freedom of action.

He has already been accused of using the case to aggrandise his reputation more than to unravel the truth. Under French law all details of an investigation by an examining magistrate are supposed to be strictly confidential.

Mr Kiejman, yesterday described him as a "judge driven by strong narcissistic impulses and a strong desire for publicity".