France players questioned over under-age escort girl

PARIS (Reuters) – French police investigating a prostitution network questioned soccer stars Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema in custody on Tuesday about alleged soliciting of sex with a minor, a police source said.

The police had postponed the hearing at the Paris vice squad until after the World Cup, in which Ribery, a winger for Bayern Munich, was part of France’s disastrous campaign.

French media have suggested the players were clients of a nightclub in Paris’s Champs-Elysees upscale district that allegedly featured escorts, including the under-18 girl.Visite here

Local television station i-Tele said the two had been presented to a magistrate who will now decide whether to place them under judicial investigation, or free without charge.

The scandal, which gripped France ahead of the World Cup, took a new twist in late April when the young woman at the center of the case gave a lengthy interview to Paris Match magazine, implicating players and denying being a prostitute.

She said Ribery had invited her to Munich in April 2009 to celebrate his 26th birthday in a luxury hotel, adding that he had paid her for three encounters last year. According to French law, paid sex with someone under 18 is deemed sex with a minor.

Zahia, who turned 18 in February, confirmed widespread reports in the French press that she was underage when she met Ribery, but added that she had not informed him about her age.

Ribery’s lawyer Sophie Bottai told reporters on Tuesday that for her client to be found guilty the girl “would have had to look like a minor and that was not the case and … had informed him that she was under age, which was not the case.”

The offence carries a penalty of three years in prison and a 45,000 euro fine ($58,390), although a conviction hinges on proving the accused knew the minor’s age.

Zahia “said in all the press that she told him (Ribery) and others that she was an adult,” Bottai added.

Ribery was France’s most popular player before the World Cup fiasco, in which ‘Les Bleus’ were eliminated in the first round without winning a match, and he took part in a revolt by players who boycotted a training session before their final game.

The police source added Ribery’s brother-in-law and Benzema’s agent were also in custody over the incident. Police custody can last 48 hours before a judge must make a decision.

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