Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema on trial over prostitute

Karim Benzema (L), and Franck Ribery in a training session (14 Aug 2012) Ribery (R) and Benzema both deny the allegations

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The trial of French footballers Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema, charged with having sex with an underage prostitute, has begun in Paris.

Bayern Munich winger Mr Ribery, 30, and Real Madrid striker Mr Benzema, 26, deny knowingly paying for sex with Zahia Dehar while she was under 18.

They each face up to three years in prison and fines of up to 45,000 euros ($55,000).

Neither was present in court, allowing their lawyers to represent them.

Ms Dehar, now 21, did not attend either.

Zahia Dehar shows her lingerie collection in Paris (23 January 2013) Since the scandal broke, Zahia Dehar has become fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld's muse

Earlier Carlo Alberto Brusa, Mr Ribery's lawyer, struck an upbeat note. "We are going in confident and we are going to fight," he said.

Ms Dehar has also withdrawn as a civil plaintiff in the case. "She is not asking for anything," said her lawyer, Daniel Vaconsin.

The two players are accused of paying for sex with Ms Dehar when she was 16, in Mr Benzema's case, and 17, in Mr Ribery's.

The age of consent is 15 in France, but paying for sex with anyone under 18 is a crime.

The trial is going ahead after France's highest court ruled that only those aware that a prostitute was underage can be found guilty of breaking the law.

The prosecutors believed there was no case to answer - it is the investigating magistrates that have pushed this case, reports the BBC's Christian Fraser in Paris.

All three were entitled to stay away from court, and allow their lawyers to do the talking, but that does not always play well with the presiding judges, our correspondent adds.

'Birthday present'

Mr Ribery's brother-in-law is also charged with soliciting a minor for sex, and five other accused face maximum prison terms of 10 years on charges relating to the case, including "aggravated pimping".

Mr Ribery has admitted having sex with Ms Dehar after she was flown to Munich in 2009 as a "present" for his 26th birthday, but maintains he could not have known she was not 18 at the time.

Mr Benzema, who is accused of paying for sex with Ms Dehar in a Paris hotel, denies that any encounter took place.

Ms Dehar has testified that she had sex with both players for money after lying to them about her age.

The footballers were initially investigated as part of a probe into an alleged under-age prostitution ring centred on a Champs-Elysees nightclub.

The allegations about their conduct caused an outcry and prompted criticism from politicians including the then President Nicolas Sarkozy. But both have since bounced back, with Mr Ribery recently coming third in the recent Ballon d'Or vote for Europe's best player.

Ms Dehar, now 21, became a celebrity following the scandal and has since established herself as a designer of luxury lingerie, thanks partly to being befriended and promoted by fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld.

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