Real Madrid star Karim Benzema has been found guilty of conspiring to blackmail his former teammate Mathieu Valbuena with a sex tape in a bombshell case that has rocked French football.
The striker was handed a one-year suspended sentence and a €75,000 (£63,000) fine by the judge this morning, in a sentence harsher than the one sought by prosecutors.
The France international, who earns a basic salary of around £10million a year in Spain, was one of five people on trial in Versailles, near Paris, over the 2015 extortion attempt over a sexually explicit video that was stolen from Valbuena’s phone.
Benzema claimed he was only trying to help his fellow player when he approached him about the sex tape at the French team’s training centre in October 2015 and told him he could help him find someone to ‘manage’ the issue of the video.
When the trial concluded last month prosecutors had demanded Benzema, who was not present during the court proceedings, be given a 10-month suspended sentence and a fine of €75,000.
Real Madrid star Karim Benzema (pictured) has been found guilty of complicity in an attempt to blackmail fellow player Mathieu Valbuena
Investigators alleged that Benzema (right) encouraged Valbuena (left) to pay a group of alleged blackmailers in order to keep a sexually explicit tape out of the public eye
Valbuena (pictured right outside courts last month) said the affair – which saw him and Benzema excluded from the national team – had left him feeling ‘frightened’ and fearful for his career
The maximum sentence the former Lyon striker could have received was a five-year term in prison and €90,000 (£75,000) fine.
Benzema’s lawyer said the player would appeal against the 74-page verdict.
Speaking to reporters at the courthouse, one of his lawyers, Sylvain Cormier, said he was ‘stunned’ by the sentence which he called ‘very severe, unfair and unfounded’.
A second lawyer, Antoine Vey, said that Benzema, who did not attend his trial, would ‘come and explain himself’ when the case went to an appeal.
The judge had said: ‘Benzema was not aware of the precise manoeuvres but the content of his chat at Clairfontaine with Valbuena shows he was personally involved.
The court ruled that he had ‘implicated himself personally, through subterfuge and lies, to convince his team-mate to submit to the blackmail.’
It added that he had shown ‘no kindness towards Valbuena’, as he had claimed, ‘just the opposite’, and even appeared to take pleasure in his fellow player’s demise.
Benzema, who had denied any wrongdoing, has not been in court throughout the proceedings.
Benzema’s lawyer Antoine Vey is pictured at the court in Versailles on Wednesday morning
The judge said Benzema’s motive was not money but his unwavering bond with his childhood friend Karim Zenati (pictured)
He is due to play for the Spanish club against Moldovan side Sheriff Tiraspol later in the day.
The court decision is unlikely to affect Benzema’s immediate sporting future.
The forward is regarded as one of the favourites to win the Ballon d’Or award on November 29 in Paris following an impressive season with Madrid.
‘This outcome in no way corresponds with the reality of events,’ lawyer Antoine Vey told reporters afterwards.
Real Madrid did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The four other defendants, including one of Benzema’s childhood friends Karim Zenati, were also found guilty and did not appear at the court Wednesday.
All were said to have humiliated Valbuena by threatening to publish a sex video ‘in the English media’ showing him having ‘intimate relations’ with a partner.
They were handed various punishments from an 18-month suspended sentence to two and a half years in prison.
Together, they and Benzema have also been ordered to pay Valbuena €80,000 in legal costs and €150,000 in damages.
Noel Le Graet, the president of the French FA, recently said the outcome of the trial would have no impact on Benzema’s chances of playing for the French national team.
Testifying on the opening day of the trial, Valbuena said the affair – which saw him and Benzema excluded from the national team – had left him feeling ‘frightened’ and fearful for his career.
The judge said Benzema’s motive was not money but his unwavering bond with Zenati.
But prosecutor Segolene Mares said: ‘Benzema is not a good Samaritan who just wanted to help out.’
The expected gains from the blackmail plot were €150,000.
In a wiretapped conversation, Benzema told his friend Zenati who was accused of acting as a middlemen for the suspected blackmailers that ‘he’s not taking us seriously’.
Benzema (pictured in training on Tuesday) was on trial in France over the 2015 extortion attempt over a sexually explicit video that was stolen from Valbuena’s phone
The prosecution said this shows Benzema was complicit, but his lawyer said the exchange showed the footballer was ‘not an example of total contrition’ during the conversation.
‘We never said he was being kind… but it is not a criminal offence,’ Vey told the court.
In an interview with investigators in 2015, Benzema denied involvement, asking why he would get involved.
‘I have enough money. I don’t need it,’ he said.
Valbuena first lodged a formal complaint with police in June 2015 after being telephoned by an unknown person about the sex tape.
Police then posed as friends of Valbuena, luring four blackmailers into a trap, and they were arrested.
Two of the group had ties to Djibril Cisse, the former Liverpool player, who was originally arrested in relation to the case but then released.
Younes Houass, 32, one of the main blackmailers alongside Moustapha Zouaoui and Axel Angot, spent four months in pre-trial detention in 2016. Like Benzema, all denied any wrongdoing.
Valbuena, who now plays for Greek club Olympiacos, was today preparing for a Europa League meeting against Turkish side, Fenerbahce, on Thursday.
In 2014, Benzema was cleared on all charges during an under-age sex trial in Paris, in which his co-defendant was the former France international Franck Ribery.
Both players denied knowingly paying for sex with Zahia Dehar when she was under 18.
Benzema is currently being supported throughout his legal troubles by his wife, the French model Cora Gauthier, 29.
He was previously linked with pop star Rihanna and they were pictured out together but never confirmed the romance.
After preliminary charges in November 2015, Benzema was dropped from France’s national team by coach Didier Deschamps.
That resulted in Benzema missing the 2016 European Championship, and also the 2018 World Cup.
He called the charges ‘absurd’ after they saw both him and Valbuena dropped from the France squad before their World Cup victory in Russia.
Deschamps recalled Benzema ahead of the delayed Euro 2020 tournament and has since fielded him regularly.