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Madrid forward Benzema on trial in France for blackmail

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LYON, France (AP) — Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema will stand trial outside Paris starting Wednesday after being accused of trying to blackmail former France teammate Mathieu Valbuena over a sex tape.

Benzema is on trial for complicity in attempted blackmail. Four other people, including one of the player's childhood friends, have been charged with attempted blackmail.

The charges are punishable by up to five years in prison and a 75,000 euro ($87,400) fine. Benzema has denied wrongdoing.

During questioning, the 33-year-old Benzema acknowledged he had served as an intermediary between one of the alleged blackmailers, his friend Karim Zenati, and Valbuena, who now plays for Greek club Olympiakos.

But Benzema also told investigators that he took no part in blackmail and that his involvement was limited to simply telling Valbuena, out of friendship, about the existence of the sex tape.

It is unclear whether Benzema will be physically present at the trial from Wednesday through Friday in Versailles. Real Madrid was playing at Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League on Tuesday and Benzema traveled and trained with his team in Kiev ahead of the match.

Valbuena first filed a police complaint in June 2015. He said that while on international duty for France, at its training base in Clairefontaine, he had been telephoned by an anonymous caller who spoke about a sex tape and told him that they could come to arrangement. The caller told Valbuena to designate a trusted intermediary to work out the details.

With a police detective posing as a negotiator, the investigation initially identified three people: Axel Angot, Mustapha Zouaoui and Younes Houass, all now standing trial for attempted blackmail. Their communications were wire-tapped.

Benzema was subsequently brought in by Zenati, a friend who has previous drug and robbery convictions and had been released from prison in 2013.

When both were on international duty in October 2015, Benzema asked Valbuena into his room at Clairefontaine for a conversation that led Valbuena to conclude that his France teammate was involved with the alleged blackmailers and acting as their intermediary.

Police say they heard Benzema tell Zenati in a wire-tapped call that evening that Valbuena “isn't taking us seriously.”

Benzema later told the investigating magistrate that he had simply wanted to help the midfielder.

Benzema and Zenati were both handed preliminary charges in November 2015, joining Angot, Zouaoui and Houass under formal investigation.

Benzema was then dropped from France's national team by coach Didier Deschamps, missing the 2016 European Championship and the 2018 World Cup, which was won by France.

Deschamps recalled Benzema in May ahead of the delayed Euro 2020 tournament and has fielded him 11 times so far in 2021.

Valbuena, now 37, hasn't played for France since Oct. 11, 2015, when he came on as a substitute in a friendly match against Denmark.

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Associated Press writer John Leicester in Paris contributed to this report.

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More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Nicolas Vaux-montagny, The Associated Press

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