Jackson is charged with seven counts of child abuse

Prosecutors in California charged Michael Jackson last night with seven counts of sexual molestation against a 12-year-old cancer victim who spent nights at the singer's Neverland ranch, and two counts of administering an "intoxicating agent", identified by the district attorney as alcohol, to facilitate sexual contact.

Offering a first public glimpse into the case, Tom Sneddon, Santa Barbara county district attorney, distributed a charge sheet listing instances of Mr Jackson's "substantial sexual contact" with the boy in February and March. He refused to discuss the evidence in detail but seemed confident that it would shock the court.

He suggested the $3m (£1.7m) bail posted last month might not seem adequate once his team began presenting evidence in the preliminary phase of a trial. He added that Mr Jackson, if convicted, would not qualify for a probationary sentence but would do time behind bars. The charges carry a maximum prison sentence of eight years for the first count and a further two years for each subsequent count.

It was hard to know if the district attorney's bravado indicated genuine confidence that he had nailed his man, 10 years after a previous accusation of sexual abuse made against Mr Jackson resulted in an out-of-court financial settlement without criminal charges. Mr Sneddon may also have been playing to the substantial media gallery gathered outside the courthouse in Santa Maria, the nearest sizeable town to Mr Jackson's ranch.

Given the gravity of the charges, Mr Sneddon seemed remarkably lackadaisical about the fact that Mr Jackson was being allowed to travel to Britain for Christmas and New Year, ostensibly to fulfil contractual obligations relating to the recent release of a greatest hits album. Commenting on the unusual decision to return Mr Jackson's passport, which was surrendered on his arrest last month, Mr Sneddon conceded there was no way to prevent him from taking off.

"If he wanted to leave at some point in time, he could leave," Mr Sneddon said. The last time a Hollywood celebrity was given such an opportunity was when Roman Polanski faced statutory rape charges in 1977, and he fled the United States. There has been much speculation that the judge in Mr Polanski's case in effect gave him the nod to get out.

Mr Jackson's lawyers have denounced the prosecution as "a big lie" predicated on a desire by the alleged victim's family to go after his money.

Mark Geragos, Mr Jackson's lawyer, said his client was "unequivocably and absolutely innocent" of the charges.He told reporters: "Michael Jackson is going to fight these charges with every fibre of his soul."

His legal team have pointed to a recently leaked report from the Los Angeles Department of Child and Family Services that looked into the molestation allegations in February and deemed them to be "unfounded".

Mr Sneddon said yesterday, however, that the report was not worthy of the word "investigation" and accused the Los Angeles authorities of failing to do their job. Unconfirmed reports supporting his accusations suggested that a representative for Mr Jackson was in the room when the alleged victim and his family were asked about instances of possible molestation.

The investigation covered incidents said to have happened between 14 and 27 February, while the charge sheet alleged instances of molestation beginning on or around 7 February and continuing until 10 March. The alleged victim has not been named, but he is believed to be very sick. The DCFS report said he had undergone a year of chemotherapy and had had his spleen and one kidney removed.

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