France has opened an investigation into rape and child assault accusations against the disgraced US financier Jeffrey Epstein, the Paris public prosecutor's office has announced.
“The investigations... will focus on potential crimes committed against French victims on national territory as well as abroad, and on suspects who are French citizens,” Paris Prosecutor Remy Heitz said in a statement on Friday.
The potential crimes could include rape and sexual assault against minors younger than 15 years old, as well as participating in a long-running child sex trafficking ring.
Prosecutors are stepping in after Innocence en Danger, a French child protection group, said on Wednesday that it was referring to authorities witness statements from 10 people claiming to be victims or witnesses of sexual abuse linked to Epstein.
The late billionaire paedophile is known to have owned an apartment in Paris, and it is suspected that some of his alleged crimes took place there.
Where the Victims French?
According to Himayra Sellier, the head of Innocence en Danger, the alleged victims were not all French but the crimes they complained about “took place on French territory and probably at the hands of French people.”
The new accusations involve one of Epstein’s close friends, French model scout Jean-Luc Brunel.
The latter was a central figure in a 2015 lawsuit brought by Virginia Roberts Giuffre, one of Epstein's accusers who claimed that Brunel had acted as a recruiter of teenage girls for Epstein and also raped them.
Brunel, 72, vehemently denied any wrongdoing at the time and faced no action. He also kept a low profile during Epstein's ordeal this year.
Innocence en Danger demanded that prosecutors open an inquiry into the suspected criminal affairs of Epstein and his cohorts in France two weeks ago. Their call was echoed by France’s gender equality minister, Marlene Schiappa.
What Happened to Epstein?
Epstein was found dead in his jail in downtown Manhattan on 10 August; with the authorities declaring his death as a suicide by hanging.
The New York financier, 66, was awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges involving minors. The FBI and the Justice Department have both opened investigations into his death after the US attorney general pointed to “irregularities” at his detention facility.
Specifically, it emerged that Epstein had been removed from suicide watch prior to his death and had not been checked on for hours before the suicide. He was being held in a special housing unit after an apparent earlier suicide attempt.
A lawyer for three of Epstein's victims called this story “highly suspicious,” pouring fuel on conspiracy theories by claiming that Epstein's cellmate was pulled from his cell a few hours before his death.
“I think the most likely scenario if it is not suicide... is that there were too many people that were afraid that he would talk about what he may have done with them and others. They just paid off someone to go into the jail and take care of him,” the lawyer said.
Epstein, who was believed to have high-profile connections in the United States and elsewhere, had served 13 months in jail for soliciting a minor for prostitution under a 2007 plea deal.