French football internationals Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema were acquitted on charges of soliciting an underage prostitute on Wednesday, ending a case that has lasted more than three years and tarnished both players' reputation.
Paris: Frank Ribery and Karim Benzema were Thursday acquitted of charges of having sex with an under-age prostitute that have been hanging over the two France stars for four years.
The decision by a Paris court ends legal proceedings that had threatened to end in prison terms that could have prevented one or both of them from playing in this year's World Cup in Brazil.
Ribery's brother-in-law was also cleared of the charges against him in what had become known as the "Zahia affair" after the former prostitute involved, Zahia Dehar. The judge however convicted five other men linked to Ribery and Benzema of pimping and handed down prison sentences to four of them.
Bayern Munich winger Ribery's lawyer, Carlo Alberto Brusa, said that his client "had goosebumps" when he was told of his acquittal. "This affair will nevertheless leave behind a little field of ruins," he added. "Many people have been hurt by this.
"One can make mistakes in life without it having anything to do with the courts." Sylvain Cormier, the lawyer acting for Real Madrid striker Benzema, said he was pleased that the case was finally at an end after "pointless" proceedings.
"Karim had protested his innocence," he said, adding that the case had been a "nightmare" for his client. Neither player's form has been significantly affected by the legal case with Ribery in particularly having enjoyed the best seasons of his career since he was charged.
The acquittals had been widely expected following a recommendation to that effect from the public prosecutor in the case, who had concluded it was impossible to say that either player had knowingly paid for sex with a minor.
Memorably, the prosecutor had told the court that while Ribery's conduct had been less than that expected of a gentleman, there was no basis to convict him given that Dehar had admitted lying about her age.
News of the investigation into Ribery, now 30, and Benzema, 26, broke just before France's disastrous 2010 World Cup campaign and was one of a series of episodes that badly damaged the reputation of the national squad in the eyes of the French public.
Although the age of consent is 15 in France, paying for sex with anyone under 18 is a crime. Ribery acknowledged having sex with Dehar in 2009 after she was flown to Munich to attend a party for him. But he denied paying her 700 euros (USD 950) and said he was unaware that she was a prostitute.
Benzema has always denied an alleged sexual encounter with Dehar in a Paris hotel the previous year. Neither Ribery nor Benzema attended the hearing, while Dehar also chose to stay away from court.
After news of the charges first emerged, Dehar became a protege of fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld and she is now established as a succesful lingerie model and designer in her own right.
The affair has shed light on a seamy side to Paris night-life and in particular the scene at the now-closed Zaman Cafe cabaret near the Champs-Elysees, a venue at which fame-hungry young women would mingle with footballers and French B-list celebrities.
The investigation started after police received a tip off that Abousofiane Moustaïd, a former contestant on a French reality television show, was acting as a paid go-between ensuring a supply of young flesh for the stars who frequented the nightclub.
Moustaid received the heaviest sentence handed out on Thursday, two years in prison with one suspended, after the judge ruled that he knew Dehar well enough to have known she was under age.
His lawyers said they would appeal. Kamel Ramdani, who organised the trip to Munich, was given a five-month prison term while the two brothers who owned the Zaman Cafe were given six and nine-month terms.