France striker Benzema placed under formal investigation in sex tape blackmail plot
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Real Madrid and France striker Karim Benzema was placed under formal investigation on Thursday in an extortion case involving a sex tape featuring fellow French international Mathieu Valbuena, the prosecutor's office said on Thursday.
Benzema has been charged with "complicity in an attempt to blackmail" and conspiring to commit a criminal act, which is punishable by at least five years in prison, the prosecutor's office in Versailles outside Paris said.
Under the terms of the formal investigation, which in France's justice system does not confirm any wrongdoing but does mean investigators have serious grounds for pursuing the matter with him, Benzema is forbidden to have contacted with Valbuena.
Both players would normally be included in the France squad for an upcoming series of international friendlies and for next year’s European Championships, which France will host.
Benzema was detained by French police on Wednesday and spent the night in custody, before going before a judge Thursday for questioning.
A source close to the investigation said Benzema had “admitted involvement” in the alleged extortion plot.
"Karim Benzema has admitted speaking to Valbuena at the request of a childhood friend, who was approached by three blackmailers who were in possession of the sex tape," the source said.
"Benzema said he had agreed with his childhood friend on what he should say so that his teammate (Valbuena) would negotiate exclusively with him."
Investigators have been trying to determine the extent of Benzema's involvement in a months-long attempt to extort money from Lyon midfielder Valbuena after a sex tape found its way into the hands of suspected blackmailers.
The three alleged blackmailers, who are all in custody, had first contacted a friend of Benzema's brother seeking to involve the player in their extortion attempt, a source said.
Benzema mentioned the intimate video to Valbuena when the French national team met for training near Paris in early October, ahead of matches against Armenia and Denmark, said the source.
His lawyer had said Wednesday that Benzema had played "no part" in the plot and was keen to clear his name.
"Karim Benzema has absolutely nothing to hide," said lawyer Sylvain Cormier.
"He is happy, satisfied even, to finally put an end to this tiresome controversy."
The blackmail case began in June, when Valbuena lodged a complaint with police after being telephoned by an unknown person who said he had the sex tape.
The caller did not specify a sum of money but said they should come to an arrangement.
Police then took over, posing as Valbuena's business associate in later calls with the blackmailers, who threatened to release the video ahead of the 2016 European Championship, which France is hosting.
Ties to Djibril Cissé
The investigation led them to three men, including one who was a close member of Valbuena's entourage and who had direct access to the footballer's phone containing the sex tape.
Two of the group are also said to have ties to former French international Djibril Cissé, an ex-teammate of Valbuena at Marseilles, and successfully made him pay up for a sex tape in 2008.
The group used Cissé to authenticate the sex tape, the judicial source said, leading him to warn Valbuena that a video was circulating.
Cissé was detained for questioning last month but was quickly released without charge.
In a bid to speed up the negotiations, the blackmailers contacted a friend of Benzema's brother in Lyon, a man already known to police.
The friend was detained in relation to the blackmail case on Monday and was due to appear before a judge later Wednesday in Lyon.
Benzema, 27, is one of Real Madrid's star players alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale and has a good reputation with managers and fellow players.
He started his career in his home town of Lyon, the club Valbuela joined this summer.
However, it is not the first time the French striker has been embroiled in a police investigation.
In 2009, he and teammate Franck Ribéry were accused of sleeping with under-age prostitute Zahia Dehar.
Both men were finally cleared of wrongdoing five years later, by which time Dehar had become a reality TV star and fashion designer.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
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