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Epstein says not guilty to sex trafficking

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United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman speaks during a news conference, in New York, Monday, July 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

US financier Jeffrey Epstein has pleaded not guilty to sex trafficking charges as he was accused of luring dozens of girls to his luxury homes and paying them for sex acts.

An indictment unsealed in federal court in Manhattan accuses the 66-year-old of arranging for girls as young as 14 to perform nude "massages" and other sex acts, and paying some girls to recruit others, from at least 2002 to 2005.

The former hedge fund manager "intentionally sought out minors and knew that many of his victims were in fact under the age of 18, including because, in some instances, minor victims expressly told him their age", the indictment said.

Wearing dark blue jail scrubs, Epstein entered his plea before US Magistrate Judge Henry Pitman in Manhattan on Monday to one count of sex trafficking and one count of sex trafficking conspiracy.

He faces up to 45 years in prison if convicted.

US Attorney Geoffrey Berman said Epstein's alleged victims deserved their day in court.

"The alleged behaviour shocks the conscience, and while the charged conduct is from a number of years ago, it is still profoundly important to the many alleged victims, now young women," he told a press conference.

Prosecutors asked for Epstein to be detained pending trial, saying he posed an "extraordinary risk of flight" because of his "exorbitant" wealth, ownership of private planes capable of international travel, and significant international ties.

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

He was arrested on Saturday night at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, where he had returned on his private plane from Paris.

Berman said a search of Epstein's Manhattan mansion uncovered evidence including nude photographs of what appeared to be underage girls.

He encouraged other victims to come forward and contact prosecutors.

Known for socialising with politicians and royalty, Epstein once had friends including US President Donald Trump and former president Bill Clinton, and according to court papers, Britain's Prince Andrew.

None of those people were mentioned in the indictment.

Trump praised Epstein in an interview with New York magazine in 2002.

"I've known Jeff for fifteen years. Terrific guy," Trump said.

"He's a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it - Jeffrey enjoys his social life."

In 2007, Epstein was facing a potential federal indictment for similar accusations but struck a deal to plead guilty in 2008 to a lesser felony prostitution charge.

He served 13 months in a county jail, but was allowed to leave during the day to go to his office, and agreed to register as a sex offender.

Some of Epstein's accusers have criticised that agreement as too lenient.

Berman said he was not bound by it.

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