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French footballers to face judge in prostitution probe
PARIS (Reuters) - French football stars Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema will be called before a judge to answer claims that they paid for sex with a minor, Paris prosecutors said on Tuesday.
Bayern Munich winger Ribery and Real Madrid striker Benzema have been under investigation since 2010 in the so-called "Zahia" affair in which they are accused of paying Zahia Dehar, then 16, for sex in 2009 and 2008, respectively.
Investigating magistrate Andre Dandot ruled on August 10 that the duo should testify but did not set a date, the prosecutor's office said.
Prosecutors, who have not decided whether to appeal the magistrate's decision, requested in November that the case be closed, arguing that the footballers did not know Zahia was under age.
Ribery and Benzema are set to play for France against Uruguay on Wednesday in a friendly international at Le Havre, the team's first game under new coach Didier Deschamps.
The scandal gripped France ahead of the 2010 World Cup and further tarnished the image of the French squad, whose reputation was already battered by internal bickering and a 2-1 loss to South Africa.
"Karim Benzema is innocent and will explain himself in front of the court," Benzema's attorney, Sylvain Cormier, told Reuters.
A lawyer for Ribery could not be immediately reached.
The offence carries a penalty of three years in prison and a 45,000 euro ($55,400) fine, although a conviction hinges on proving the accused knew the minor's age.
Zahia has denied being a prostitute but has said she was invited to Ribery's 26th birthday party in a luxury Munich hotel and paid for sex. She has said she never told him her age.
Ribery has acknowledged the encounter but his lawyers have argued the young woman would have had to have looked like a minor in order for their client to be found guilty.
Zahia, who shot to fame in France after the allegations came to light, launched her own lingerie line during Paris Fashion Week earlier this year.
Deschamps declined to comment when asked at a pre-game press conference about the upcoming court appearance, saying it was a personal matter.
"It's in the hands of justice. Beyond that, this changes nothing in terms of my demands on them as members of the French team, on and off the pitch," Deschamps said. ($1 = 0.8116 euros)
(Reporting by Gerard Bon and Jean-Paul Couret Writing by Alexandria Sage; Editing by Andrew Osborn)
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