The sex tape trial involving French football stars Karim Benzema and Mathieu Valbuena opened on Wednesday.
Benzema, 33, is accused of blackmailing Valbuena alongside four others and faces a five-year prison sentence and a €75,000 fine if found guilty.
The star striker was not in the Versailles courtroom on Wednesday morning due to professional obligations, his lawyer said. His Real Madrid team was in Ukraine on Tuesday for a Champions League match and must now prepare for a “Classico” clash against Barcelona on Sunday.
Valbuena’s lawyer, Paul-Albert Iweins, “deplored” Benzema’s absence. “I hope that the court will draw the consequences of this,” he said.
Benzema’s lawyers had demanded — in vain — for the two men to meet and talk. The case is seen as thorny because open to interpretation. Benzema claims he only meant to offer friendly advice, while Valbuena says it amounted to criminal pressure.
The case dates back to October 6, 2015, when the two men were at Clairefontaine, the training centre for the French national football teams.
‘Big, big thugs’
Benzema said he was helping his teammate get rid of a problem in the form of a compromising video — a type of blackmail that’s reportedly rife in football circles. He warned Valbuena that the owners of the video were “big, big thugs” and said he could introduce him to “someone he trusts” to sort things out.
Valbuena later realised that Benzema is linked to the instigators of this blackmail attempt as the friend he recommends, Karim Zenati, is an intermediary contacted by the two alleged blackmailers to put pressure on him.
The two alleged blackmailers — Axel Angot and Mustapha Zouaoui — initially tried to get in touch with Valbuena after recovering the video by going through another French international, Djibril Cissé.
But Cissé, who was under investigation that has since been dropped, refused to put them in touch with Valbuena and instead warned his former Olympique de Marseille teammate of the existence of the video.
Angot and Zouaoui then went through Younes Houass, who contacted Valbuena on his phone before being put in touch with ‘Luka’, an undercover police officer who acted as the complainant’s intermediary.
But the exchanges did not progress and several times it was even ‘Luka’ who called Houass again, which, according to the defence, constituted provocation to commit an offence.
This argument was finally invalidated by the Court of Cassation after a long series of legal twists and turns.
Angot, Zouaoui, Houass and Zenati are being tried and were present at the hearing on Wednesday.
Since the scandal erupted, Valbuena, 37, has not been called up to play for his country. He currently plays for the Greek team Olympiacos.
Benzema was also sidelined after being placed in police custody in November 2015 but made a triumphant return among Les Bleus before the Euro 2020 championship.
Since then, he has put in a series of good performances for France and is now seen as a contender for this year’s Ballon d’Or.