The French journalists Éric Laurent and Catherine Graciet were arrested last week for allegedly attempting to extort 3 million euros ($3.37 million) from King Mohammed VI of Morocco by offering to withdraw a damning book they had written about his monarchy.
The accused gave their own version of the affair on Monday, claiming that they are victims of entrapment.
They were caught red-handed on Thursday, each having accepted 40,000 euros ($44,800) in cash from one of the king's attorneys at a luxury Paris hotel, and taken into custody by police..
The sting came four months after France and Morocco resumed legal ties following a 16-month diplomatic row that culminated when France summoned Moroccan intelligence chief Abdellatif Hammouchi for questioning in Paris as part of a lawsuit over allegations of torture.
"I want three."
It all started on July 23, when 68-year-old Laurent — an investigative reporter who specializes in world affairs — contacted the palace to request an interview with a royal spokesperson. According to the king's attorney, Laurent informed the palace that he was about to release a book about the royals and had some pressing questions. A meeting was scheduled for August 11.
The book was said to contain damning revelations about the king and the royal family, in particular relating to their financial affairs and excessive spending. Mohammed VI, who came to power in 1999, is worth an estimated $2.13 billion, and Moroccan royals hold a grip on the country's economy via their private holding company.
During the meeting, which took place at Le Royal Monceau hotel in Paris, Laurent allegedly demanded 3 million euros ($3.37 million) to drop the book project. According to a transcript of the meeting, which was recorded by the king's attorney on his mobile phone and published Sunday by French weekly Le Journal Du Dimanche, Laurent is asked by the attorney how much he wants.
"I want three," replies the journalist.
"Three what — three thousand?" asks the attorney.
"No, three million," corrects Laurent.
"Three million dirhams?" ventures the attorney.
"No, three million euros," answers Laurent.
Following the first meeting, Moroccan officials filed a complaint with the government in Paris.
Laurent and the king's attorney met a second time, on August 21, to discuss Catherine Graciet, the book's co-author. According to Le Journal Du Dimanche, Laurent told the attorney that Graciet was aware of the deal. He alsodescribedhis colleague as being "passionate about horse-riding," and said that, in the event of a deal, she "would dedicate herself to horse-riding and write a historical biography."
France officially opened a judicial inquiry following the second meeting.
A third meeting on August 27 was attended by Laurent, Graciet and the king's attorney. The journalists and the royal representative met for nearly five hours at the five-star Hotel Raphael, in Paris. Their lengthy conversation was monitored by French police.
The pair also signed a letter agreeing to "never again write" about the king "in return for the payment of a sum of two million euros," and accepted a down payment of 80,000 euros ($90,000) between them.
French police arrested them at 4 PM as they exited the hotel.
In a lengthy interview with French daily Le Monde, Laurent admitted that the transaction had taken place, but insisted that Morocco had "offered" to pay for the book to be withdrawn. The purpose of the initial appointment, said Laurent, was to "cross-check" certain facts for the upcoming exposé. Laurent also acknowledged that he was not opposed to the idea of a settlement.
Speaking to I-Télé Monday, Laurent maintained his version of events and said the Moroccan government had "manipulated" the recording of the conversation from the first meeting.
Meanwhile, Graciet told French daily Le Parisien that she had "never intended to blackmail anyone" and had "fallen into a trap." She, too, admitted that she had agreed to compensation, explaining that she had "given in to temptation" and had "a moment of weakness."
"Everyone wonders what they would do with their life if they were given 2 million euros. Try and imagine the situation. And this was to withdraw a book, not to kill anyone…" said the journalist. Echoing her colleague Laurent, Graciet has maintained that the initial offer came from the palace. She conceded that, "ethically and morally speaking, it's not great," but said that there was no "criminal" wrongdoing.
Following their arrest, the journalists expressed hope that their book would be published after all, but their publisher Éditions Le Seuil said in a statement that publication could not go ahead "given the circumstances."
Speaking to VICE News Monday, Paris attorney Thierry Vallat said investigators would have to determine which of the two parties had suggested the transaction.
"If Morocco initiated the deal, then it's no longer a matter of blackmail or extortion, but [an issue of] journalistic ethics," he said.
Vallat said it would prove "very difficult" for the two journalists to clear their names, particularly because of the incriminating recordings. According to the journalists' attorneys, the recordings were "obtained fraudulently" because they were made by the royal representative and not by the police. But Vallat noted that French criminal law has a system of "free proof" in which all evidence is considered valid.
If they are found guilty, Laurent and Graciet could face a jail term. According to French law, blackmail is punishable by up to five years in prison and extortion by up to seven.
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter: @PLongeray
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