France football stars Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema were charged last night with soliciting an underage prostitute – the latest blow for the French national team that returned from the World Cup in disgrace.
Mr Ribéry, 27, and Mr Benzema, 22, were questioned for most of yesterday as part of an investigation into a suspected network of prostitutes that operated out of a nightclub on Paris's Champs-Elysees. The brother of Ribéry's wife, Wahiba, has also been placed under investigation.
The investigation, which was put on hold during the World Cup, will further blacken the reputation of a France international team which performed, and behaved, so woefully in South Africa.
Ribéry, who plays for Bayern Munich, and Benzema, of Real Madrid, have been suspected since April of paying for sex with a girl called Zahia Dehar, before she reached the "legal" age of prostitution. Under French law, prostitution is legal but pimping is not. Prostitutes must be over the age of 18 and clients can be prosecuted if they knowingly offer to pay for sex with girls below that age.
Both the players deny any wrongdoing. Ribéry has admitted having sex with Dehar, but claims that he was unaware of her age at the time, while Benzema says that he is "unaffected" by the allegations.
Moroccan-born Ms Dehar, who has become a star of French glossy magazines since the story broke in April, has repeatedly told journalists that her footballing clients were unaware of her age. In a series of press interviews, she has – confusingly – denied that she is a prostitute but admitted accepting money to have sex with wealthy men, including three France internationals.
She was first questioned by the Paris vice squad as part of a wider investigation into a bar just off the Champs Elysées which was suspected of providing call girls for sports and show-business celebrities. Ms Dehar told police that Ribéry, who is married with two children, flew her to a luxury hotel in Munich in April 2009 as a present to himself for his 26th birthday. She was then 17 years and two months old.
Ribéry and Benzema could face up to three years in prison and a €55,000 (£40,000) fine if found guilty of paying to have sex with a minor. However, the burden of proof would rest on the prosecution to show that the pair knew – or should have known – that the girl was under 18.
Ribéry's lawyer, Sophie Bottai, said yesterday: "It is the kind of offence [where intention has to be shown]. He would have to know her age, which wasn't the case. She would have to look minor, which wasn't the case. She would have to tell him she was minor, which wasn't the case... All over the press, she has [since] claimed that she [said] she was adult and that she was more than 20 years old."
Ribéry and Benzema presented themselves for questioning at the headquarters of the Paris vice squad yesterday. They were then taken, in handcuffs, the short distance to the Palais de Justice to appear before an investigating magistrate, André Dando. He is looking into allegations of high-class pimping for celebrity clients at the Zaman Café, which has now been closed.
Ribéry, a converted Muslim from a poor white family in Boulogne-sur-Mer, was one of the most popular people in France before the scandal broke. His reputation was further damaged at the World Cup, when Les Bleus were eliminated in the first round without winning a match and after scoring only one goal. He was one of the ringleaders of a players' strike after the forward Nicolas Anelka was sent home for insulting the manager, Raymond Domenech.
Benzema, once seen as the rising star of French football, was not selected after a poor first season in Madrid.
Ms Dehar is reported to have told investigators that she first had sex with Benzema for money in 2008, when she was 16 years old. She also said that she had sex with Ribéry three times.
Another France international, Sidney Govou, who recently transferred from Lyons to Panathinaikos in Athens, is also alleged to have paid for sex with Ms Dehar, but after her 18th birthday in February this year. A fourth international, Hatem Ben Arfa of Olympique Marseille, has already been questioned, but only as a witness.
Ten other people were arrested on 12 April. Four of them, including the manager of the bar and a waiter, have been placed under formal investigator for proxénétisme, or pimping.