A newsstand clerk checks copies of Closer magazine Tuesday in Nice, southern… (Lionel Cironneau / Associated…)
PARIS — Britain's royal family won a legal victory Tuesday when a French court ordered a magazine to hand over photographs of Kate Middleton, the wife of Prince William, sunbathing topless at a secluded villa in the south of France.
The court decreed that Closer, the glossy celebrity magazine that published the "profoundly intimate" pictures, had 24 hours to comply with the order or face a penalty of $13,000 for every day it delayed in doing so. The court also said the French magazine would be fined $13,000 every time it republished or distributed the offending images.
However, the judges said it was not within their power to prevent the magazine from reprinting the edition containing the photographs. Closer has already declared that it has no intention of doing so.
The royal couple were said to have been "shocked and troubled" by the photos, which they termed a "grotesque" invasion of privacy.
At a hearing Monday, their lawyer, Aurelien Hamelle, requested a court injunction and reminded the panel of three judges that the pictures had been taken Sept. 5, almost 15 years to the day that William's mother, Princess Diana, had died in a "morbid, cynical and pointless chase" by paparazzi in Paris.
Hamelle angrily rejected suggestions that the prince and Middleton had brought the scandal on themselves by complaining about the photos. "Where's the morality in that?" he said.
But Closer's attorney, Delphine Pando, said the furor over the pictures was a "disproportionate response" to an "ordinary scene." She insisted that the couple had been "clearly visible from the road" from where the photographs were taken, even though the private villa, which belongs to one of the prince's relatives, sits several hundred yards away.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, as William and his wife are known, have also filed a criminal complaint under France's privacy laws, which could see Closer fined tens of thousands of dollars and its editor serve up to a year in prison. They also lodged a complaint against "persons unknown," referring to the photographer, who has not yet been identified.
Hamelle told the civil court hearing in Nanterre, a Paris suburb, that the photos revealed "particularly simple and deeply intimate moments … that have no reason to be on a magazine cover."
"In the name of what did Closer publish these 'shock' photos? Certainly not in the name of information," Hamelle said. "The Duchess of Cambridge is a young woman, not an object … and I ask you to put yourself in the place of her husband, Prince William … and the place of her parents."
The injunction granted Tuesday does not apply to publications outside France that have opted to run the photos, including Closer's sister magazine in Italy. An Irish newspaper has also published revealing pictures of Middleton, which led senior executives at the paper to suspend its editor and prompted Ireland's justice minister to call for the introduction of privacy laws.
No British news organization has picked up the photos, which surfaced a few weeks after the Sun sparked thousands of complaints by publishing photos of William's younger brother, Prince Harry, having a naked romp in a hotel room in Las Vegas.
Britain's sensation-seeking tabloids generally have been more circumspect in their treatment of the royal family since Diana's death in a 1997 car crash.
This time, restraint in connection with the photos of Middleton may also be due in part to a soon-to-be-released report by an independent judicial inquiry on media ethics. The investigation was sparked by Britain's phone-hacking scandal, which first came to light when police discovered that a tabloid reporter was illegally accessing voicemail left for aides to William and Harry. Britain's media establishment is hoping the report will not contain too strong a censure or a call for press regulation.
Though the royal household won in court in France on Tuesday, it suffered a setback at home when a freedom-of-information tribunal ordered the British government to disclose confidential letters written by Prince Charles, heir to the throne, to government ministers.
The panel sided with the Guardian newspaper, which had demanded the documents' release on the grounds that the prince has used his position to try to influence political decisions, something he is not supposed to do.
Charles is well-known for speaking out on such issues as genetically modified foods, which he opposes, and modern architecture, which he detests.
"An important feature when Prince Charles is seeking to promote a charity or to promote a view on policy is that he has an ability to use privileged access to ministers," the panel said. "Correspondence from him … will quickly come to the attention of the minister, who is likely to take a personal interest."
Special correspondent Willsher reported from Paris and Times staff writer Chu from London.