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US financier Jeffrey Epstein charged with sex trafficking

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Demonstrators hold signs aloft protesting Jeffrey Epstein, as he awaits arraignment in the Southern District of New York on charges of sex trafficking of minors and conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of minors, in New York.

[NEW YORK] Federal prosecutors in New York on Monday charged American financier Jeffrey Epstein with sex trafficking of underage girls, more than a decade after he avoided similar charges in Florida in a plea deal.

Prosecutors unsealed an indictment charging him with one count of sex trafficking and one count of sex trafficking conspiracy.

Epstein, 66, was arrested on Saturday night and could appear in federal court on Monday to hear the charges. His lawyer, Jack Goldberger, has said Epstein will plead not guilty.

The former hedge fund manager, known for socialising with politicians and royalty, first came under investigation in 2005 after police in Palm Beach, Florida, received reports he had sexually abused minors in his mansion there.

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Epstein has said in court filings that his encounters with alleged victims were consensual and that he believed they were 18 when they occurred.

By 2007, Epstein was facing a potential federal indictment for sexually abusing dozens of girls as young as 14 between 1999 and 2007, directing others to abuse them and paying employees to bring victims to him, according to court filings.

However, Epstein struck a deal in which he 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.

The deal has been challenged in court by several of Epstein's accusers, who say they were denied a chance to have their views about it heard, in violation of the federal Crime Victims' Rights Act.

In February of this year, a US district judge in Florida agreed, ruling that the deal violated the law.

Even so, the US Department of Justice said in a court filing last month there was no reason to cancel the agreement.

Among the prosecutors involved in the agreement was Alex Acosta, then the US Attorney for the Southern District of Florida and now US Secretary of Labor for President Donald Trump. A spokeswoman for the Department of Labor on Sunday declined to comment on Epstein's arrest.

Democrats in the US House of Representatives confronted Mr Acosta about his role in the Epstein case in April when the labor secretary appeared before the House Appropriations subcommittee on a routine budget matter.

Acosta responded that human trafficking was "an in­cred­ibly important issue" and said his office's efforts ensured that Epstein faced jail time and had to register as a sex offender.

"I understand the frustration," Mr Acosta told the subcommittee. "I think it's important to understand that he was going to get off with no jail time or restitution. It was the work of our office that resulted in him going to jail."

A Justice Department office is investigating whether government attorneys committed professional misconduct in the Epstein case.

Brad Edwards, a lawyer who represents some of Epstein's accusers, told Reuters on Sunday that he had taken many calls from "victims crying tears of joy" since news broke of Epstein's arrest. "One just kept repeating that she was so happy he was finally off the streets," Mr Edwards said.

REUTERS