SARAH Ferguson, the Duchess of York, is facing the possibility of more than 20 years in jail after she was charged for secretly filming children in Turkish orphanages.
Turkish authorities have asked the British government to help obtain evidence to prosecute the Duchess over allegations that she breached the privacy of children living in state-run institutions.
The Turkish government accused the Duchess of trying to smear the country’s image three years ago with an investigative television report about conditions in its orphanages.
On Thursday, the office of Turkey’s chief prosecutor announced that it was pressing charges against the Duchess for “violating the privacy” of five children.
If found guilty, the Duchess, 52, could face between seven and a half years and 22 and a half years in prison.
The charge was issued in the Duchess’s absence and accuses her of prying into the private lives of youngsters at the Saray orphanage near Ankara, where more than 700 disabled children are housed.
The British Home Office confirmed it had received a request for “mutual legal assistance” from the Turkish government but refused to say whether it would co-operate.
However, sources said it appeared unlikely that the Duchess could be extradited as the offence is not a crime under British law.
James Henderson, a spokesman for the Duke of York’s former wife, said the Duchess had not been informed about the charge by Turkish authorities.
“The Duchess is not aware of this – the Turkish authorities have not contacted her,” he said.
“It’s important to stress that the Duchess was on a humanitarian trip at the time, and that it was ITV who made the programme, not her.
“I am not aware of what jurisdiction the Turkish authorities have over the Duchess. At the time, the British government was asked if it would get involved and they refused.”
In 2008, the Duchess and her younger daughter Princess Eugenie, 21, accompanied an undercover reporting team probing living conditions in institutions for abandoned children.
Disguised with a black wig and headscarf, the Duchess gained access to the Saray orphanage and obtained footage broadcast on ITV1's Tonight programme, which appeared to show children tied to their beds or left in cots all day without being taken out to be fed.
One child, who was not allowed outside, was discovered crawling along the corridor to feel the sun on his face.
In November that year, Nimet Cubukcu, the Turkish minister responsible for women and family, claimed the programme was deliberately scheduled to coincide with the release of a report on Turkey's bid for European Union membership.
She said: "It is obvious that in this incidence that she is trying to leave Turkey in the midst of a smudge campaign.''
Anadolu, the state-run news agency reported that the prosecution claims the children filmed in the programme were youngsters with severe disabilities, many of whom were prone to “violent tendencies towards themselves and their surroundings”.
The charge claims that by secretly filming the children, who were receiving “constant care”, the Duchess had “exposed their safe lives”, it was reported.
Sources said that senior executives at ITV have also been made aware of the charge and are seeking legal advice.
At the time, the Duchess insisted the programme – Duchess and Daughters: Their Secret Mission – was not politically motivated.
Princess Eugenie was moved to tears after visiting one centre which houses 60 disabled children – many abandoned by their parents.
She said: "It made me so angry. In the hustle and bustle of a cosmopolitan city, in a popular tourist destination it's hard to comprehend places like that exist. My eyes have been opened.''
A cable from the US embassy in Ankara in November 2008 suggested that David Miliband, the former Foreign Secretary, disowned the Duchess after the scandal, telling his Turkish counterpart that she could not "be controlled".
The Duchess, who was caught in a newspaper sting in 2010 offering to sell access to the Duke of York for £500,000, made no reference to the charge on her Twitter account on Thursday.
Instead, she tweeted that 2012 would see her "re engineer my figure and mindset".