- Mamane Abou, director of the Nigerien private weekly 'Le Républicain', was released from detention in Niamey this morning. The journalist had spent two months in prison after having been sentenced to imprisonment in a controversial defamation case, denouncing possible corruption in the Finance Ministry.
The Niamey Appeals Court however only granted Mr Abou a temporary release today. The director of 'Le Républicain' had been sentenced to six months in prison with no parole on 7 November 2003. He was also ordered to pay a fine of 300,000 CFA francs (450 euros) and 10 million CFA francs (15,200 euros) in damages and interest for "defamation" and "stealing documents".
The newspaper director was accused of publishing several confidential Public Treasury documents indicating that the Finance Minister Ali Badjo Gamatie had misappropriated several billion CFA francs (more than euro 1.5 million). He had been held at Say's central prison, about 50 kilometres from the capital, Niamey.
The investigative report in 'Le Républicain' also included embezzlement accusations against Prime Minister Hama Amadou Amadou. The editor referred to secret papers, indicating irregular payments to suppliers and other irregularities. Mr Abou was accused of having stolen these documents.
Mr Abou himself was not present at the rushed court case against him in November last year. He was sentenced 'in absentia', yet he at the moment was being held at Niamey prison.
After the allegations of embezzlement had appeared in the 'Républicain' on 15 July 2003, 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.
The editor is now expected to appear in court again within the next few weeks. Mr Abou today told the French group Reporters sans Frontičres (RSF) that, for the moment, he felt relieved and added that he was looking forward to "getting back to work as soon as possible."
Abdoulaye Moussa Massalatchi, the President of the Union of Private Sector Journalists of Niger (UJPN) called Mr Abou's release a "half victory" when speaking to journalists in Niamey today. He however noted that the outcome of his appeal was still uncertain.
RSF today in a statement welcomed Mr Abou's release and urged the Nigerien government to decriminalise press offences. "We believe that sentencing a journalist to six months in prison for 'defamation' is completely disproportionate," the statement said.
- It is possible to penalise press offences without using such repressive and brutal means, the group added. Independent Nigerien media have had difficult times during the government of President Mamadou Tadja, who came to power in a military coup in 1999.
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