French soccer stars charged in prostitution case

Two French soccer stars, one of whom played in the recent World Cup tournament, were detained by police Tuesday in an investigation involving an underage prostitution ring. Preliminary charges were issued against the pair before they were released.

The players, Franck Ribery, 27, and Karim Benzema, 22, had been questioned by a magistrate in the case in May, but the investigation was suspended for two months to allow them the opportunity to perform in the international tournament in South Africa.

Ribery, who played for the French national team in the World Cup, and Benzema, who was left off the squad, are alleged to have had sex with prostitutes younger than 18, a crime punishable by up to three years in prison and a fine. Prostitution itself is legal in France, providing the age limit is met.

The preliminary charges will allow officials time to investigate Ribery, who plays for Bayern Munich, and Benzema, who plays for Real Madrid, before deciding whether they should be tried.

The resumption of the case is the latest blow for the beleaguered “Bleus,” who went on strike during the World Cup, refusing to practice, in support of a player sent home for swearing. They were knocked out of the competition after only one round.

Outside the police station, Ribery’s lawyer, Sophie Bottai, said he was confirming what he has said: For it to be “an intentional offense, he would have to know her age, which wasn’t the case,” she said.

The investigation revolves around a Champs-Elysees nightclub raided in April by police who detained 18 women for questioning. The scandal became public when Zahia Dehar, now 18, kissed and told Paris Match about her alleged $3,000 assignations with Ribery, who is married with two daughters.

Dehar said that she had been flown to Germany for the player’s birthday in April 2009 and had been paid for sex, but denied that he knew she was underage. He then became a repeat client of hers in Paris, she said.

In May of this year she wrote to then-French soccer team manager Raymond Domenech pleading with him to include the players in the squad, saying that she had “not been a victim” and that she had hidden her age.

The decision not to choose Benzema for the squad was itself a cause for controversy when fans complained the selection process was racist because the team that played in South Africa contained no players of North African origin.

For years, the French team has largely avoided the kind of scandal common in English soccer.

Police files show that Dehar started working as a prostitute in March 2008, when she was 16. She made as much as $30,000 a month, and many of her clients were soccer players. She said she shouldn’t be viewed as a hooker because of the milieu in which she operates.

“I go to all the hot places, so I meet people from show business and sport. But they propose … and I dispose,” she told Paris Match.

Culliford is a special correspondent