PARIS: Two French investigative journalists have been charged in Paris with trying to blackmail the king of Morocco out of two million euros ($2.2 million) in hush money, legal sources said Saturday.
Eric Laurent and Catherine Graciet were working on a book about King Mohammed VI, which was due for release early next year.
But they were arrested in Paris on Thursday after a meeting with a Moroccan official at which they allegedly took 40,000 euros ($45,000) each as a down-payment, a source close to the French investigation told AFP.
The Moroccan government claims that was the first instalment out of a total of two million euros demanded by the authors in exchange for not publishing their book and its supposedly damaging revelations about the king.
The French judicial source said the journalists were being investigated for attempted extortion and attempted blackmail.
They are currently free on bail, but restricted from talking to each other or parties involved in the case.
Eric Dupond-Moretti, a lawyer for the Moroccan government, told France´s RTL radio that 68-year-old Laurent contacted the royal palace in July, saying he was writing a book about the monarch.
The journalist allegedly demanded three million euros initially, but reduced the figure after further negotiations.
However, by then the monarch had filed a case with Paris prosecutors and later meetings with the journalists were bugged.
“Meetings were filmed and recorded between the journalists and the king´s representatives… under the supervision of the police,” said Dupond-Moretti on Thursday.
“They were caught red-handed.”
He also said a contract had been signed by the journalists, acknowledging receipt of the 80,000-euro down-payment and promising to “not write anything about the king of Morocco”.
Three sources close to the case have told AFP that Laurent has acknowledged the claims against him, but not the precise way in which they have been presented.
Graciet´s lawyer, Eric Moutet, confirmed the existence of a “financial deal” but said his client had been caught in a “trap”.
“The Moroccan kingdom has a clear axe to grind with Catherine Graciet and a new book on the entourage of the king is in preparation at the moment when the financial deal is put in place,” said Moutet, adding that this was a “very troubling context” for the accusations.
The pair are known in Morocco, having published a highly critical book on Mohammed VI in 2012 entitled “The predator king”. When Spain´s El Pais newspaper printed excerpts from the book, the edition was banned in Morocco.
Their publisher, Editions du Seuil, confirmed that the two writers were working on another book slated for publication “in January/February”.
The affair threatens to once again test the delicate relations between France and its former colony, which have been particularly strained since France launched an investigation into claims of torture by the head of Morocco´s counter-terrorism unit.