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Ribery to face judge in underage prostitution case

Bayern Munich winger Franck Ribery and his France teammate Karim Benzema will be called to court to answer allegations that they paid for sex with a minor. The case revolves around whether they knew she was 16.

Prosecutors in Paris said on Tuesday that the two star footballers would be called into court as part of a broader underage prostitution case, even though they had asked for that aspect of the case to be dropped.

Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema had been under investigation since 2010 as part of the "Zahia" affair. Eight people are under investigation, some charged with aggravated pimping. Ribery and Benzema are accused of paying for sex with Zahia Dehar in 2009 and 2008, respectively, when the girl was 16 years old.

Both players have acknowledged the incident, but said they were unaware of Zahia's age. Zahia disputes the term prostitution but says she was paid for sex by both players. She also told investigators that she did not tell Ribery or Benzema how old she was.

Real Madrid's French striker Karim Benzema celebrates after scoring against Malaga CF during their Spanish King's Cup second leg round 16 match at La Rosaleda stadium, in Malaga, Andalusia, southern Spain, on 10 January 2012.

Karim Benzema, also a French international, plies his trade in Spain

Paris prosecutors had requested in 2011 for the case specifically against Ribery and Benzema to be dropped owing to them apparently not knowing Zahia was 16 at the time.

Soliciting sex from an underage prostitute in France can carry a penalty of up to three years in prison or a fine of up to 45,000 euros ($55,480), but it is incumbent upon the prosecution to prove that the client knew the prostitute was underage.

Lawyers confident

Zahia's encounter with Ribery took place on the player's 26th birthday at a luxury Munich hotel, while most of the case revolves around the Zaman Café on Paris' Champs Elysees.

Ribery's lawyer Sophie Bottai told the AFP news agency that she was astonished by the judge's decision to call her client into court, calling the move "as surprising as it is unjust." Though Bottai added she was "confident" about the case.

Benzema's attornery, Sylvain Cormier, told Reuters that his client "is innocent and will explain himself in front of the court."

Ribery joined German giants Bayern Munich in the summer of 2007, he has played 129 games and scored 43 goals for the Bavarian outfit, usually occupying the left wing. Benzema plays with Spanish league champions Real Madrid.

Both players have been named in national team coach Didier Deschamps' squad for a Wednesday friendly against Uruguay in Le Havre in northern France. Deschamps told reporters on Tuesday that he "won't be commenting on [the case] as it has a private dimension. It's in the court's hands."

The Zahia affair first rocked France in 2010, shortly before what turned out to be a disastrous World Cup for "Les Bleus." Zahia rose to prominence through the incident as well, she launched her own lingerie line at Paris Fashion Week early this year.

msh/ccp (AFP, Reuters, SID)