France international footballers Frank Ribery and Karim Benzema were charged with having had sex with an under-age prostitute Tuesday, as magistrates cracked down on an alleged celebrity vice ring.
The indictments are the first stage of a formal judicial investigation that could lead to a trial and, if convicted, both players face up to three years in jail and a fine of 45,000 euros (58,000 dollars).
Ribery, who plays for German giants Bayern Munich, arrived at the offices of the investigating magistrates at the Palace of Justice in Paris in handcuffs, according to several witnesses, but he was freed without preconditions after the hearing.
Ribery's lawyer Sophie Bottai expressed surprise at the charge.
"The only thing that's new since the last time he was questioned is that the World Cup is over and he played badly," she told reporters, confirming that her client's 22-year-old brother-in-law had also been charged.
|French footballer Franck Ribery, seen here arriving for questioning at a police station in Paris, was placed under formal judicial investigation Tuesday on allegations he had sex with an under-age prostitute, a judicial official told AFP|
The counsel for Real Madrid striker Benzema was not immediately available for comment.
Ribery has never denied having paid for sex with the young woman at the centre of the scandal, 18-year-old blonde party girl Zahia Dehar, but his lawyer told reporters that he had had no idea in 2008 that she was under-age.
"There's not a single element of physical proof," she said. "This woman told them she was of age, was all made up, dressed up, appeared very switched on."
The players appeared before investigating magistrate Andre Dando after having been detained by vice squad officers and questioned for six hours on a charge of having "solicited an under-age prostitute."
The players were detained at the request of the magistrate, who is probing claims that a Champs Elysees nightclub gave clients access to minors working as call girls.
Ribery, 27, was a member of France's ill-fated World Cup squad, which went out in the first round at this month's tournament in South Africa. He did not score and his performance was seen as disappointing.
Benzema, 22, was not chosen for this year's French team despite playing in much of the World Cup qualifying campaign.
Dehar is now 18 years and four months old. She has been questioned by police and gave a tell-all interview to the news and gossip weekly Paris Match after the scandal erupted.
She described selling sexual encounters to Ribery in 2009 and to Benzema in 2008, while she was underage, and with a third French player, 30-year-old Panathinaikos winger Sidney Govou, in March, when she was an adult.
Dehar has said the players did not know she was a minor. In France the general age of consent is 15 years, but in the case of prostitution a young person remains legally a minor until he or she reaches 18.
Secretary of state for urban policies, Fadela Amara, said the episode set a poor example for French youth.
"It is not a good image of a man to give to the youth of France," Amara said in an interview with French news channel iTele. "I am sorry to see a man like Ribery find himself in such a terrible, catastrophic situation."
Adult prostitution is in itself legal in France, but pimping, solicitation and running organised vice networks are outlawed.
The footballers became caught up in the investigation after detectives probing allegations of a vice ring bugged the Zaman Cafe, an expensive nightspot just off Paris's most glamorous street, the Champs Elysees.
Four people -- including the owner of the club, a waiter who worked there and a man suspected of pimping call girls to celebrities and sportsmen -- have been placed under formal judicial investigation and could face trial.
The club itself has been closed down by an administrative order.