The French international footballer Karim Benzema has received a one-year suspended jail sentence and been fined €75,000 (£63,000) for his involvement in a sex tape extortion scandal that shocked French sport.
A Versailles court on Wednesday found Benzema guilty of complicity in attempted blackmail against his French teammate Mathieu Valbuena over a video thought to have been stolen from Valbuena’s mobile phone.
Benzema’s lawyer said the Real Madrid striker would immediately appeal against the sentence, calling it “unfair and based on no proof”. Benzema, who denied wrongdoing, had been absent from court due to sporting commitments, but his lawyers said he would be present if a second trial took place on appeal.
The scandal shook French football in 2015 and the investigation and court case had cast a shadow over the national team ever since. An investigation opened in July 2015 when the midfielder Valbuena, who then played for France and Lyon, went to the police after being contacted by an unknown man claiming to be in possession of an incriminating sex tape apparently recorded on a mobile phone. The caller did not specify a sum of money but said they should come to an arrangement.
Benzema, 33, was one of five people put on trial last month over the extortion attempts against Valbuena. Benzema was accused of encouraging Valbuena, 37, to deal with the blackmailers and to pay them. One intermediary was a childhood friend of Benzema’s. Benzema’s lawyer denied in court that he was complicit in blackmail, saying he had intervened only to try to help his teammate find a solution, not to blackmail him.
The court found Benzema guilty of complicity in targeting Valbuena, who now plays for the Greek club Olympiakos. The judge said on Wednesday that Benzema had “personally got involved, with insistence, to try to convince Mathieu Valbuena to meet his trusted man”. The court found Benzema showed “no kindness” to Valbuena and “very much to the contrary” had acted “with a certain excitement, even jubilation”.
Both Benzema and Valbuena lost their places on the national team in 2015 when the scandal broke and preliminary charges were filed. Valbuena was described at the time by his coach as not being in an emotional state to play. Benzema was recalled this year for the European Championships.
State prosecutors had told the court that Benzema had a duty to be exemplary as a national footballer, carrying “an image of hope” and “moral values”. They told the court he had acted as a kind of middleman to ensure the blackmailers got the money they wanted.
Valbuena told the court he had been in fear for his career. “I knew if the video came out, it would be complicated for me. I felt in danger and my first instinct was to go to the police,” he said.
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 29 November in Paris after an impressive season with Real Madrid. The French Football Federation president, Noël Le Graët, has already said Benzema would be allowed to keep playing for France even if found guilty.
Four other men received guilty verdicts in the case on Wednesday and were given penalties ranging from suspended prison sentences to two and a half years in jail.