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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

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    Karim Benzema, French Soccer Star, Is Convicted in Sex Tape Scandal – The New York Times

    PARIS — Karim Benzema, a star striker for Real Madrid, was found guilty by a French court on Wednesday on charges that he was part of an attempt to blackmail a fellow player in a case involving a sex tape, a scandal that saw Benzema excluded from France’s national soccer team for more than five years.

    Benzema, 33, was given a one-year suspended prison sentence and a fine of 75,000 euros, or about $84,000.

    He had been accused of helping four other men blackmail Mathieu Valbuena, a teammate in the France squad, over an intimate video that had been taken from Valbuena’s mobile phone.

    Benzema has always denied the accusations, and his lawyers quickly announced that he would appeal the verdict. He was preparing for Real Madrid’s Champions League match later on Wednesday against Sheriff Tiraspol and did not attend court for the decision.

    It was unclear how the verdict would affect Benzema’s standing on the national team. France dropped Benzema from the squad in 2015 because of the case, an exile that continued through the team’s World Cup victory in 2018. But Didier Deschamps, the French coach, surprisingly recalled him this year for the European Championship.

    Noël Le Graët, the president of the French soccer federation, had said this month that Benzema would not be automatically kicked off the team if found guilty, and that it would be Deschamps’ decision whether to keep the striker in the squad.

    Since his return to the national team, Benzema has been a key player, despite France’s early exit from the Euros. Two of his most recent goals — in a match against Kazakhstan that qualified France for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar — moved him among the top five highest scorers for his country.

    Benzema has won three Spanish titles and four Champions Leagues with Real Madrid. This week he was shortlisted by FIFA for its annual best player awards, and he is also seen as a contender for the Ballon d’Or, soccer’s biggest individual prize for players, which will be announced on Monday.

    Four other defendants were tried on the charges of attempted blackmail, including Karim Zenati, one of Benzema’s childhood friends, and three men who acted as murky intermediaries and occasional fixers behind the scenes of soccer’s cash-infused world. They were also found guilty.

    Zenati was sentenced to 15 months in prison. Of the others, two were given jail terms, of two and of two and a half years, and one received an 18-month suspended sentence.

    The court in Versailles, southwest of Paris, heard at trial last month how Valbuena was first alerted in 2015 by another France teammate to the existence of an intimate video of him, believed to have been stolen from Valbuena’s mobile phone.

    In June of that year, Valbuena received several phone calls from men threatening to publish the video if he did not pay them tens of thousands of euros. Valbuena refused and instead filed a criminal complaint.

    After several unsuccessful attempts, the blackmailers were suspected of having contacted Zenati, in hopes that he would push Benzema to speak with Valbuena and encourage him to pay, the court was told.

    In October 2015, in a conversation with Valbuena at the French squad’s training facilities in Clairefontaine, near Paris, Benzema said that he could help his teammate by putting him in touch with someone who could fix the problem, the court heard.

    Benzema, who did not attend the trial, has acknowledged that he acted as an intermediary but has always maintained that he was merely offering Valbuena friendly advice on how to handle the blackmailing attempt, not taking part in it.

    But Valbuena said that he had interpreted Benzema’s role differently. “I felt like Karim Benzema wanted to scare me,” Valbuena testified at trial, according to French news reports.

    After the conversation between the players, Benzema spoke crudely and mockingly about his teammate in a phone call with Zenati that was tapped by the police and later leaked to news media.

    On the call, which was played at trial, Benzema told Zenati that Valbuena “isn’t taking us seriously” and that Benzema had told Valbuena, “If you want the video to be destroyed, my friend comes up to see you in Lyon and you sort it out face to face with him.”

    Benzema’s lawyers argued that deriding a teammate over the phone was not a crime and that the charges against Benzema rested solely on Valbuena’s interpretation of the conversation, in which money was not mentioned.

    Antoine Vey, one of Benzema’s lawyers, told reporters in Versailles on Wednesday that the court itself had acknowledged that Benzema did not know about the full extent of the blackmailing plot.

    “How, without being informed of the backdrop to this affair, could he have been an accomplice to the project?” Vey said, adding that Benzema would testify on appeal.

    Prosecutors, however, noting that Benzema had never advised Valbuena to alert the police, said that the phone call had shown that he was part of the blackmail attempt.

    “Karim Benzema is not a good Samaritan who came to help,” Ségolène Marés, a prosecutor in the case, said at trial. “He acted to enable the negotiators to achieve their goals and the blackmailers to get their money.”

    The case made Benzema the focus of intense criticism in France, especially on the political right, and it created a rift between him and the French squad. In 2016, Benzema, who is of Algerian descent, told a Spanish newspaper that Deschamps had “bowed to the pressure of a racist part of France” by agreeing to leave him off the national team.

    But the men appeared to have reconciled before this year’s Euros, when Deschamps said he had held a long discussion with the player before recalling him.

    “Everyone has the right to make mistakes,” Deschamps said in May.

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