French football stars skip prostitute trial

JEROME PUGMIRE
Last updated 06:42 21/01/2014

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Bayern Munich winger Franck Ribery and Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema both skipped a trial examining whether they solicited an underage prostitute on Monday, with the two facing up to three years in prison if they are found guilty.

The criminal court trial had initially been set for last June but was adjourned for procedural reasons. It resumed Monday - but without Ribery or Benzema present.

They are legally entitled to be represented by their lawyers instead, although their absence may make an unfavorable impression on the jury. Lawyers for both players said their clients would not attend any of the trial, which ends Thursday.

Self-described escort Zahia Dehar, now 21, contends Ribery flew her to Munich as a birthday present to himself in 2009 when she was under 18. She says she lied to the players and told them she was an adult. Dehar was also not present on Monday.

"We have a truncated trial. On one hand the civil party (Dehar) who was, let's say, at the time the victim, who is no longer the victim and no longer considers herself one and therefore she is out of the trial," Ribery's lawyer, Carlo Alberto Brusa, said Monday. "On the other hand, I remind you that the prosecutor has recommended that the case be dismissed. By consequence, today, we have a trial without accusations."

Ribery is alleged to have had sex with Dehar three times - including at the home of Kamel Ramdani, 39, one of several people who are on trial after a probe into a suspected network of prostitutes operating out of a nightclub called "Zaman Cafe" on Paris' Champs-Elysees first opened in 2010.

"As far as I'm concerned, I will do everything possible so that France and a leading football player will be cleared of everything," Brusa said.

The establishment was run by Georges Farhat, 30, who employed his younger brother Elie Farhat, 26. Both were at the trial Monday.

"No one sold their charms at my establishment," Georges Farhat said during Monday's trial, adding that he "never saw" Zahia who he only knew of as "a friend of a barmaid who worked there."

Although Ribery has admitted to having sex with Dehar, he claims he did not pay her and that he did not know that she was either a prostitute or a minor at the time.

Benzema has denied all the allegations. The 26-year-old Benzema is alleged to have paid (euro) 500 ($678) to have sex with Dehar in May 2008 the night he won the French player of the year award playing for his former club Lyon. At the time Dehar was 16.

"From the outset, Karim Benzema has said that nothing happened on May 11, 2008. We are going to try to demonstrate that this is the truth and even prove it, and I hope that we are cleared," Benzema's lawyer Sylvain Cormier said. "Cleared outright, not just on the benefit of the doubt or on a technicality."

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Prostitution is legal in France, but prostitutes must be over 18. The two players face potential prison terms of up to three years and a 45,000 euro ($60,000) fine each if convicted.

The scandal broke in April 2010, just weeks before France's ill-fated World Cup campaign, where Ribery was designated as one of the leaders of a training ground strike that shocked the nation and led to him receiving a three-match ban.

The "Zahia affair," as it became known, caused an outcry in France, with politicians harshly criticizing the players' attitude, legislators in parliament questioning the coach and even then-President Nicolas Sarkozy weighing in on the debacle.

In July 2010, a French judge issued preliminary charges against Benzema and Ribery.

Dehar said at the time that she cooperated with police because they threatened to revoke her French citizenship. Born in Algeria, Dehar said she and her family obtained French nationality in 2009.

Ribery has since rebounded and is back in favor with the French fans. He finished third in the recent Ballon d'Or vote behind Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, although opinion was divided as to whether Ribery should have won it considering he won the Bundesliga title, Champions League and German Cup with Bayern.

Last weekend, Benzema scored his 100th club goal for Madrid.

Several other people were questioned, including Abousofiane Moustaid, 34, an alleged ringleader in the prostitution network at the time, and Dorra Brakha, 37, who is alleged to have been working as a prostitute at the establishment.

Dehar, in her new capacity as fashion designer, attended the Versace haute couture fashion show in Paris on Sunday.

- AP

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