Two French investigative journalists were charged with blackmail for demanding two million euros ($2.2 million) from the king of Morocco not to bring out a book purportedly containing damaging revelations about the monarch, legal sources said Saturday.
Eric Laurent and Catherine Graciet were working on a book about King Mohammed VI, which is due for release early next year.
They were arrested in Paris on Thursday after a meeting with a Moroccan official at which they allegedly accepted payments of 40,000 euros ($45,000) each, a source close to the French investigation told AFP.
The Moroccan government claims that was the payment was the first instalment of a total of two million euros demanded by the authors in exchange for not bringing out their book.
The French judicial source said the journalists had been charged with blackmail and extortion.
They were released on bail, but are 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 Mohammed VI.
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".
Through his lawyer William Bourdon, Laurent on Saturday denied any wrongdoing.
According to the lawyer, Laurent said he had been seeking a "financial deal" with Morocco about the book, but not through blackmail. He denounced what he called a "trap" and a "manipulation" by Rabat, saying he would demand that the case be dismissed.
Graciet's lawyer, Eric Moutet, also confirmed the existence of a "financial deal" but that his client had been caught in a "trap".
"The Moroccan kingdom has a clear axe to grind with Catherine Graciet," said Moutet, adding that the context of the accusations was "very troubling".
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 testy 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.