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VERSAILLES, France: The trial of French footballer Karim Benzema and four others began on Wednesday outside Paris, in the absence of the Real Madrid forward.
Benzema, who played in Kiev on Tuesday against Ukrainian club Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League, is accused of being involved in a 2015 attempt to blackmail his France teammate Mathieu Valbuena on a sex tape.
Benzema’s legal team told the Versailles court that his obligations as a player made it âimpossibleâ for him to attend the first day of the trial, which is scheduled to last until Friday.
Valbuena was in court on Wednesday. He said Benzema told him about the sex tape, telling him “there’s a video, it’s hot”, when they were together at Clairefontaine training camp in France in October 2015. Benzema also said that he had a good friend who could help him and “can solve your problem,” Valbuena said.
Although Benzema “never told me about money,” Valbuena said he understood he would have to pay for the friend’s help.
âIt wasn’t for the football tickets. It is never done for free, âsaid Valbuena. He said the conversation left him “really scared”.
In a subsequent phone call bugged by the police, Benzema then spoke about the conversation with his friend Karim Zenati. The two men had known each other from childhood. When Zenati was released from prison in 2013, following burglaries and drug convictions, Benzema hired him as an assistant.
During the wiretap call, which took place in court, the couple laughed at Benzema’s conversation with Valbuena. Benzema said he told Valbuena that “if you want the video destroyed” he should contact Zenati, without involving the police, lawyers or others.
“I gave my word that there were no copies,” Benzema said on the call.
Benzema is accused of aiding and abetting attempted blackmail, a charge punishable by up to five years in prison. He denied any wrongdoing.
Zenati and three other defendants are charged with attempted blackmail, also punishable by five years’ imprisonment. Unlike Benzema, they were all in court.
Among them, Axel Angot, who got his hands on the sex tape for the first time in 2014.
In court, Angot described himself as a handyman for football players, helping them with their computers, communications and other needs. He said the players paid him for help and that he already got 3,500 euros ($ 4,000) from a player just for delivering a USB cable to him in Croatia.
“They are football players. I saw them spend 50,000 euros in front of me in a few seconds,” said Angot.
Angot said the idea to exploit the sex tape came in 2015, to pay off a debt of 25,000 euros ($ 29,000) he owed another player for luxury watches. He said he thought a grateful Valbuena would pay him “a reward” if he helped make the video disappear.
âI’m not Bill Gates but I know computers well,â Angot said. “The main objective of this case was to pay off this debt.”
During his testimony, Angot at first denied that his intention was to blackmail Valbuena, but later admitted that the scheme was “indirectly the same”.
He apologized to Valbuena.
“I’m sorry. But it has no value,” he said.
Other defendants have denied the intention to blackmail. On his way to the hearing, Mustapha Zouaoui told reporters that Angot gave him the video and “we laughed at it” and that he then shared it with others.
“A lot of France team players saw it,” Zouaoui said. âBut there was no blackmail. We did not ask for money. There was no request for money.
In court, Zouaoui said that “the intention was not to make him bleed” but rather to spare Valbuena the indignity of the tape made public and then be rewarded for this help.
Another of the alleged blackmailers, Younes Houass, testified that he told Valbuena about the video in June 2015, when the player was at Clairefontaine.
After that call, Valbuena filed a complaint with the police and detectives got to work, identifying the defendants and wiretapping the calls.
Benzema and Zenati were both the subject of preliminary charges in November 2015, joining Angot, Zouaoui and Houass under formal investigation.
Benzema was then excluded from the French national team by coach Didier Deschamps, missing the 2016 European Championship and the 2018 World Cup, which France won.
Deschamps recalled Benzema in May ahead of the delayed Euro 2020 tournament and fielded him 11 times in 2021.
Valbuena, now 37, hasn’t played for France since October 11, 2015, when he came into play in a friendly against Denmark.
He said the alleged blackmail attempt hurt him and his career.
âSince this affair, I have never set foot in the France team again.