- Nigerien editor Mamane Abou has been sentenced to six months prison in absentia, although he was being held detained at a prison in the capital, Niamey. He is accused of publishing confidential state documents while disclosing a case of possible corruption.
Mr Abou, editor of the private weekly 'Le Républicain', has been detained at Niamey's civilian prison since 5 November. He has been accused of publishing confidential documents from Niger's Finance Ministry, indicating that the Minister of Finance had embezzled several billion CFA francs (more than euro 1.5 million).
Today, it was informed that the 'Républicain' editor already had been sentenced to six months in prison by a Niamey court two days after his detention. The most puzzling aspect of the sentence is that Mr Abou "was sentenced in absentia, yet he is being held at Niamey prison," media watchdog groups say.
When contacted by the Paris-based group Reporters sans Frontičres (RSF), Oumarou Soulé, one of the editor's lawyers, expressed shock that the regular procedure was not followed during the trial. "We plan to appeal the decision immediately," he said.
- This sentence is nonsense, the French group said in a statement today. "This journalist was only doing his job and nothing can justify such a heavy sentence. Moreover, the court did not follow the normal legal procedure," RSF added.
According to RSF investigations, the journalist's lawyers were not even informed of the decision against their client. "This has become a political matter. The authorities have sentenced the journalist secretly, without informing anyone," RSF said.
- Niger boasts that it is a democracy and a country in which the rule of law is respected, the group added. "Yet this case represents a serious decline for free expression in the country."
According to RSF's information, Mr Abou was sentenced in absentia to six months in prison with no parole on 7 November. He was also fined 300,000 CFA francs (approx. US$ 525) and was ordered to pay 10 million CFA francs (approx. US$ 17,500) in damages and interest for "defamation".
After the allegations of embezzlement had appeared in the 'Républicain' on 15 July, Mr Abou was summoned to appear before a Niamey court on 7 November. But the judge issued an arrest warrant on 5 November, claiming that Mr Abou, who had just returned from a visit to France, was trying to avoid appearing. Police and the judge had arrested him at the newspaper's offices.
Although Niger is the second poorest country in the world (after Sierra Leone) and has the world's lowest literacy rate, the situation of the press has been relatively good in the country during the last few years. 'Le Républicain' has been one of several private media to emerge in this favourable political climate.
Several recent test cases however seem to illustrate that the independent media are reaching the tolerance level of the Tadja regime. Also the August 2002 army mutiny caused greater government paranoia with the press. President Mamadou Tadja came to power in a coup in 1999, but has since then struggled to demonstrate his good and democratic intentions.
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