LONDON - Former Rupert Murdoch aide Rebekah Brooks, her husband and four others were charged on Tuesday with trying to conceal evidence in the first prosecutions to emerge from Britain's phone hacking scandal. The charges are a stunning fall from grace for Brooks, the former chief executive of News International and editor of the News of the World, but are also a political headache for her close friend, Prime Minister David Cameron. Brooks, 43, and her former racehorse trainer husband Charlie, 49, said the decision to charge them with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice was "weak and unjust".

The offence carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

Senior prosecutor Alison Levitt said Brooks allegedly hid material including computers and other electronic devices from police, but added that there was "sufficient evidence for there to be a realistic prospect of conviction".

The others to be charged are Cheryl Carter, 48, Brooks's personal assistant; Mark Hanna, head of security at NI; Brooks's chauffeur Paul Edwards, 47, who was employed by NI, and Daryl Jorsling, 39, who provided security for Brooks that was supplied by NI. Police said they were due to appear at a London magistrates court on June 13.

A seventh person arrested was released without charge.

The charges all relate to early July 2011, a frantic period during which Murdoch closed down the News of the World in disgrace after it emerged that it had hacked the phone of Milly Dowler, a schoolgirl who was murdered.

Brooks was arrested on charges of phone hacking and bribery days after Britain's biggest-selling newspaper shut down and subsequently quit News International, the British newspaper wing of Murdoch's US-based News Corp.

She remains on police bail on those charges.

Her career began on the bottom rung of Murdoch's empire more than two decades ago, but after editing the News of the World from 2000-2003, and later The Sun, she became so close to him that she was dubbed his "fifth daughter".

Instantly recognisable with her shock of flame-red hair, Brooks also moved in the highest circles of British politics, and testified to a press ethics inquiry just last week about her close relationship with Cameron.

Cameron and Charlie Brooks were schoolfriends at the elite Eton college and he attended the Brooks's wedding in 2009. She told the inquiry that Cameron used to text her "LOL", believing that it meant "lots of love".

The inquiry also heard that Cameron had offered his commiserations when Brooks resigned from NI when the News of the World scandal erupted, but on Tuesday the prime minister's spokesman refused to discuss the charges.

"It's an ongoing investigation and it would be completely improper for me to comment," the spokesman said.

Levitt said Brooks was charged with conspiring to conceal material from police between July 6 and July 19, 2011.

Brooks and Carter were charged with conspiring to remove seven boxes of material from the archives of News International, the British newspaper wing of Murdoch's US-based News Corp. empire, between the same dates.

All five except Carter were also charged with conspiring to "conceal documents, computers and other electronic equipment from officers" between July 15 and 19, 2011.

Looking pale and drawn, Rebekah Brooks left a police station in south London without commenting after hearing the charges on Tuesday.

In true tabloid style, the couple effectively broke the news of the charges by releasing a statement condemning them several minutes before the official announcement by prosecutors.

"We deplore this weak and unjust decision. After the further unprecedented posturing of the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) we will respond later today after our return from the police station," the couple said.

Carter said in a statement that she "vigorously denies" the charges, while Hanna said he would be "totally exonerated".

The charges announced Tuesday are the first since Scotland Yard opened a huge new investigation into hacking and bribery in which more than 40 people have been arrested.

A News of the World journalist and a private detective were jailed for hacking in 2007 but the paper insisted they were rogue operators.

The arrests continued on Tuesday, with police detaining a British customs official and a woman as part of the bribery probe.