PARIS: The trial of Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema for having sex with an under-age prostitute opened Tuesday but was immediately suspended pending resolution of a point of law which may result in charges against the French football stars being dropped.
Lawyers for Ribery, 30, and Benzema, 25, challenged the legal basis for the charges against their clients and the judge agreed that they had raised a legitimate question which will have to be addressed by another court before the trial can continue.
Neither Bayern Munich winger Ribery or Real Madrid striker Benzema attended Tuesday’s brief proceedings. Also absent was Zahia Dehar, the former call girl turned fashion designer at the centre of the case.
The two players are accused of having paid for sex with Dehar when she was 16, in Benzema’s case, and 17, in Ribery’s.
Although the age of consent is 15 in France, paying for sex with anyone under 18 is a crime punishable by a three-year prison term and a fine of up to 45,000 euro ($55,000) fine.
The players’ lawyers argued that the law has been drafted imprecisely and may be unconstitutional since it could permit a conviction in a case where the client could not reasonably have known the prostitute was under 18.
That issue will now be reviewed by a Court of Cassation which can either order the trial to continue or refer the issue to France’s Constitutional Council for a ruling.
Each body has a maximum of three months to deliver a ruling and the trial will resume on January 20, 2014, with or without Benzema, Ribery and Ribery’s brother-in-law, who is also charged with soliciting a minor for sex.
Five other accused face maximum prison terms of ten years for aggravated pimping.
Ribery has admitted having sex with Dehar after she was flown to Munich in 2009 as a “present” for his 26th birthday, but insists he could not have known she was not 18 at the time.
Benzema, who is accused of paying for sex with Dehar in a Paris hotel when she was 16, denies that any encounter took place.
Dehar, now 21, became a celebrity of sorts following the scandal and has since established herself as a designer of luxury lingerie, thanks partly to being befriended and championed by fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, who has described her as a quintessential French courtesan.
Dehar has testified that she had paid-for sex with both players but has said she lied to them about her age.
“There is no way they could have known (that she was under-age),” she said at the weekend.
Andre Dando, the examining magistrate who took charge of the investigation, disagrees with that view and rejected a recommendation by the public prosecutor that the charges against Ribery and Benzema be dropped.
Dehar’s alleged encounters with the two French internationals came to light after she was arrested in connection with a police investigation into the now defunct Zaman Cafe, a late-night nightclub close to the Champs Elysees that attracted a curious mix of reality TV stars, criminals and dozens of prostitutes.
Brothers Elie and Georges Farhat, who ran the club, are among the accused, as is Abousofiane Moustaid, a former reality TV performer who had allegedly developed a sideline as a pimp to the stars.
He is said to have introduced Dehar to the footballers and there has been speculation in the French media that other well-known figures were among her clients.
She was mysteriously unable to recall any names other than those of the footballers and neither the police nor the magistrate insisted on her doing so, according to Le Monde.
News of the investigation into Ribery and Benzema broke just before France’s disastrous 2010 World Cup campaign, which featured unprecedented bickering within the squad that culminated in a brief strike by the players and ended in a first round exit.