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Ribery charged

PARIS, July 21 – France and Bayern Munich footballer Franck Ribery was charged with having had sex with an under-age prostitute Tuesday, as magistrates cracked down on an alleged celebrity vice ring.Ribery’s French international teammate Karim Benzema was also detained for questioning and judicial officials said he too was likely to face charges over his alleged relations with the same teenage call girl.

The 27-year-old player arrived at the offices of the investigating magistrates in the Palace of Justice in Paris in handcuffs, according to several witnesses, but he was freed on bail shortly after the hearing.

Tuesday’s indictment against Ribery is the first stage of a formal judicial investigation that could lead to a trial and, if convicted, both players face three years in jail and a fine of 45,000 euros (58,000 dollars).

The midfielder 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."

He has never denied having paid for sex with the young woman, blonde party girl Zahia Dehar, but his lawyer Sophie Bottai told reporters outside vice squad headquarters that he had had no idea that she was under-age.

Benzema’s counsel was not immediately available for comment.

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.

They were interrogated at the headquarters of France’s BRP vice squad on the Ile de la Cite in central Paris for six hours, before Ribery was seen being taken in a police vehicle to the Palace of Justice.

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Benzema was expected to make the same journey to court, judicial officials said, but police have the right to hold him for 48 hours — until 9.00am (0700 GMT) Thursday — before making that decision.

Ribery’s 22-year-old brother-in-law and 29-year-old agent were also questioned and may also face charges, judicial sources told AFP.

Boulogne-born midfielder Ribery plays for Bayern Munich in Germany and was a member of France’s ill-fated squad which went out in the first round at this month’s 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Real Madrid striker Benzema, 22, missed out on 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.

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.

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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.

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