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French footballers Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema in court over charges of paying for sex with under-age prostitute

French international players face up to three years in prison

Two French international footballers who are charged with paying for sex with an underage prostitute appeared in court in Paris today.

Bayern Munich winger Franck Ribery and Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema both deny the allegations and the young woman involved, Zahia Dehar, testified that neither player knew she was under 18 at the time.

Under French law, the age of consent is 15 but paid sex with anyone less than 18-years-old is classified as sex with a minor and the pair face up to three years in prison and a maximum fine of €45,000 (£55,000) if convicted.

The affair, which occurred between 2008 and 2009 and was revealed shortly before the 2010 World Cup, sees six other people charged with offences. Some of them are accused of "aggravated pimping".

Ms Dehar, now 21 but 16 at the time of the incident, became famous in Europe after the scandal and has since launched her own luxury lingerie line and is reportedly the muse of German fashion designer Karl Lagerfield.

Ribery did not attend the hearing as there was "no victim," his lawyer said, adding that his client requested proceedings be held behind closed doors due to their salacious nature.

"In French law, it's not forbidden to make love to a woman and even to pay her for it, what is forbidden is to do it with a minor," Carlo-Alberto Brusa said. "When a woman travels around Europe by plane, can you imagine thinking for one second that she's a minor?"

The Champions League winner has admitted sleeping with Ms Dehar, but maintains he did not know she was then under-age. Benzema meanwhile denies any encounter.

In an unusual twist, prosecutors had sought an acquittal for the two players and Ribery's brother-in-law, who was also implicated, but investigating judge Andre Dando argued they must have been aware of her real age.