Jeffrey Epstein faces sex trafficking and conspiracy charges

US financier appears in court on Monday for allegedly molesting underage girls for years and faces life in prison.

Billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein appeared in court on Monday charged with sex trafficking by US prosecutors who accused him of abusing dozens of underage girls, some as young as 14.

Epstein, a 66-year-old US national and former hedge fund manager who once hobnobbed with some of the world’s most powerful people, pleaded not guilty to the charges. A bail hearing was set for Thursday.

Prosecutors said the financier was a significant flight risk and are asking that he be detained until his trial.

Epstein, who was arrested at an airport in New Jersey over the weekend, was charged in an indictment unsealed earlier on Monday with one count of sex trafficking and one count of conspiracy. The charges, which cover a period from 2002 to 2005, carry up to life in prison if he’s convicted.

Epstein was accused of paying underage girls hundreds of dollars in cash for massages and then molesting them at his homes in Florida and New York.

He “intentionally sought out minors and knew that many of his victims were in fact under the age of 18”, prosecutors said. He also paid some of his victims to “recruit additional girls to be similarly abused by Epstein”, the indictment said.

Federal agents found “nude photographs of what appeared to be underage girls” while searching his Manhattan mansion, said prosecutors, who were expected to argue he is a flight risk and should remain in jail instead of being released on bail to await trial.

2008 plea deal

A decade ago, Epstein avoided similar charges in Florida in a plea deal.

By 2007, Epstein had been facing a potential federal indictment for sexually abusing dozens of girls between 1999 and 2007, directing others to abuse them and paying employees to bring victims to him, according to court filings.

Epstein said at the time his encounters with alleged victims were consensual and he believed they were 18 when they occurred.

He struck a deal and pleaded guilty to a lesser Florida state felony prostitution charge. He served a 13-month sentence in county jail, during which he was allowed to leave during the day to go to his office.

‘Past cannot be undone’

Epstein’s arrest came amid increased #MeToo-era scrutiny of the 2008 deal, under which he avoided a possible life sentence.

The deal also required that he reach financial settlements with dozens of his victims and register as a sex offender.

The deal, examined in detail in a series of stories in Florida’s The Miami Herald newspaper, is being challenged in federal court in Florida. A federal judge ruled earlier this year that Epstein’s victims should have been consulted under the law about the deal, and he is now weighing whether to invalidate the agreement.

Federal prosecutors recently filed court papers in the Florida case contending Epstein’s deal must stand.

“The past cannot be undone; the government committed itself … and the parties have not disputed that Epstein complied with its provisions,” prosecutors wrote.

It was not immediately clear whether that case and the new charges involved the same victims, since nearly all have remained anonymous.

According to court records in Florida, authorities say at least 40 underage girls were brought into Epstein’s Palm Beach mansion for what turned into sexual encounters after female fixers looked for suitable girls locally and in Eastern Europe and other parts of the world.

SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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