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Actor Danny Masterson, best known for his role in the hit series That ’70s Show, has appeared in court accused of raping three women in the early 2000s.

He is charged with raping the women, who were all in their 20s, between 2001 and 2003.

Mr Masterson, 44, denies the charges and has argued he was being persecuted for his high-profile membership of the Church of Scientology.

If convicted, the actor could face up to 45 years in prison.

Free on $3.3m (£2.5m) bail since his arrest in mid-June, Mr. Masterson made his first court appearance over the allegations in Los Angeles on Friday.

While the actor did not enter a plea, his lawyer, Tom Mesereau, mounted a vigorous defense of his client, dismissing the charges against him as politically motivated.

The lawyer accused Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey of filing the charges for political gain ahead of a bid to retain her post in a November election.

“There have been repeated attempts to politicize this case,” said Mr. Mesereau, who also defended Michael Jackson against sexual misconduct allegations in a previous case. “He is absolutely not guilty and we’re going to prove it.”

Ms. Lacey is yet to comment, but Deputy District Attorney Reinhold Mueller dismissed Mr. Mesereau allegations as “false” and “pure speculation, with no basis in fact”.

Friday’s court hearing was attended by all three of Mr. Masterson’s accusers, while about 20 of the actor’s supporters stood outside the courtroom, unable to enter due to coronavirus regulations.

The allegations against Mr. Masterson first came to light in 2017, when the #MeToo movement that inspired women to go public with misconduct allegations was gathering momentum.

Mr. Masterson was removed from The Ranch – the Netflix comedy in which he starred – over the allegations.

At the time, Mr. Masterson denied the “outrageous allegations” and vowed to clear his name “once and for all”.

“Obviously, Mr. Masterson and his wife are in complete shock considering that these nearly 20-year-old allegations are suddenly resulting in charges being filed, but they and their family are comforted knowing that ultimately the truth will come out,” his lawyer Mr. Mesereau said in a statement.

The charges came after a three-year investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department. Prosecutors did not file charges in two other cases due to insufficient evidence and the statute of limitations expiring.

Mr. Masterson has been married to the actor and model Bijou Phillips since 2011.

That ’70s Show – which also starred Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis – ran from 1998 to 2006, gaining huge international success.

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