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Paris (AFP) - A formerly powerful French modelling tycoon has emerged as a key figure in the scandal surrounding US billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, who committed suicide in jail while facing charges of sexually trafficking minors.
Jean-Luc Brunel, regarded as a close friend and ally of the disgraced US financier, has been accused in court documents of procuring young girls for Epstein, as well as of rape. He has in the past unequivocally denied the accusations.
The model scout, an influential figure in the industry, has always been a low-profile figure and like some other former Epstein allies vanished after the financier was charged in early July.
Brunel has issued no comment over the latest events, but in a statement in 2015 that itself broke years of silence he vehemently denied involvement, "directly or indirectly", in Epstein's crimes.
Jailed ahead of a trial, Epstein was found hanged in his cell on August 10 after being linked to a string of sordid abuses involving underage girls at both his Palm Beach home and on his private island in the Caribbean.
- 'Investigators must shed light' -
But there have been allegations that some abuses may also have taken place in Paris at Epstein's sumptuous apartment on Avenue Foch near the Champs-Elysees.
Calls are growing in France for an investigation into what went on behind the walls of the apartment, which was frequented by Brunel.
"It is up to investigators... to shed light on the use of this apartment which was owned by Mr Epstein," said Innocence in Danger, a French NGO working to protect children against sexual violence, urging Paris prosecutors to investigate.
Two French government ministers have also demanded action, saying the US inquiry had exposed links with France that needed investigating.
So far, prosecutors have said they are carrying out an initial analysis before making a decision over launching a probe.
- Rape, procuring allegations -
Epstein, who at one time counted Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and Britain's Prince Andrew among this friends, was accused of recruiting young girls to administer massages which frequently led to abuse and even rape.
His address book, which was made public in 2015 through the Gawker website, included dozens of names listed under "massages", some 30 of which were in France.
Now in his 70s, Brunel began his career as a model scout who in 1978 was involved in setting up the prestigious Karin Models agency.
He then moved to the United States where he co-founded the Miami-based agency MC2.
Brunel's name had been linked to Epstein for several years but details emerged only relatively recently during a civil lawsuit launched in 2015 by Virginia Roberts Giuffre against Epstein.
According to court documents, Giuffre accused Epstein of using her as a "sex slave" and said she had been forced to have sex with well-known politicians and businessmen, including Brunel.
She also alleged that Brunel would bring girls as young as 12 to the United States and pass them on to his friends, including Epstein.
These claims prompted Brunel to issue his statement saying he had "decided to bring judicial proceedings in France and in the United States against allegations which cause considerable damage to me personally and to my model agencies."
- 'Omerta in place'? -
Long before the Epstein scandal broke, Brunel was accused of rape by several models in a 1988 documentary by CBS.
Last week, French investigative website Mediapart released testimony from former Dutch model Thysia Huisman alleging she was "drugged and raped" by him in the early 1990s when she was 18.
"We have been contacted by many models who worked for MC2 and Karin about accusations of potential sexual trafficking and sexual abuse," former top model Sara Ziff, who now runs the modelling rights organisation Model Alliance, told AFP.
"For years, everyone knew about these practices but said nothing, there was some kind of omerta in place," said Ekaterina Ozhiganova, co-founder of Model Law, a French association that works to protect models' rights.
"It's not the first time that people in power benefit from favourable treatment" guaranteeing them years of impunity, she told AFP, pointing to the similarities with the Harvey Weinstein scandal that rocked Hollywood and launched the #MeToo movement.
"Potential abusers gravitate towards certain professions linked to the body, like modelling," she said. "That allows them to mix with easy prey."