French Soccer Stars Franck Ribery, Karim Benzema Questioned in Prostitution Investigation

PARIS — French soccer players Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema were detained for questioning Tuesday as part of an investigation into an alleged prostitution ring, the latest setback for a national team that returned home from the World Cup in disgrace.

A police official who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the media told The Associated Press that the players were being questioned by a special prostitution brigade in Paris at the request of an investigating magistrate.

The investigation became public knowledge this year after a young woman claimed that several soccer players on France's national team paid to have sex with her when she was a minor. Zahia Dehar said the players were not aware she was underage when they had sex with her.

Two other people — a player agent and a member of Ribery's family — were also detained Tuesday, a judicial official said on condition of anonymity.

Prostitution is legal in France, but prostitutes must be over 18 years old, and clients are liable if they are not. The case is in the investigation stage and four people were handed preliminary charges and put in detention in April before being freed.

Real Madrid striker Benzema and Bayern Munich forward Ribery could face up to three years in prison and a $60,000 fine if found guilty of paying to have sex with a minor.

"It is an intentional offense, he would have to know her age, which wasn't the case," said Ribery's lawyer, Sophie Bottai. "She would have to look minor, which wasn't the case, she would have to tell him she was minor, which wasn't the case, since all over the press she claimed that she was adult and that she was more then 20 years old."

Dehar said she had been paid for sex since the age of 16 when she began partying in Paris. She claimed she met Benzema at a nightclub and he bought her services, and alleged that Lyon and France forward Sidney Govou had, too.

She told Paris Match magazine that Ribery flew her to a hotel in Germany for the night as a birthday present to himself.

Despite the scandal, Ribery was called up for the World Cup in South Africa, where France didn't progress past the first round following a string of below-par performances, while Benzema was left out, with then-coach Raymond Domenech saying it was because of his unimpressive season.

Dehar had written a letter to Domenech asking him to take no account of the case before announcing his squad for the World Cup.

In South Africa, France went out for the second consecutive tournament without winning a game after its first-round exit from Euro 2008.

The French team had a couple of days of chaos after L'Equipe newspaper published details of an expletive-filled rant by Nicolas Anelka at Domenech during one match, prompting the French federation to send the Chelsea star home.

The next day, the entire squad sat on the team bus, refusing to train in protest of Anelka's dismissal. France captain Patrice Evra had a lively altercation with the team's fitness coach on TV.

The events caused an outcry in France, with politicians harshly criticizing the players' attitude, legislators in parliament questioning the coach and President Nicolas Sarkozy weighing in.