afrol News, 15 February - A French investigating judge, Sophie Clement, has summoned the Djiboutian President, Ismael Omar Guelleh, for questioning over the mysterious 1995 death of a French Judge in the African Horn country. President Guelleh, who is in France to attend the Franco-African summit, snubbed a similar request in 2005 and is expected to do the same again.
Considered very sensitive, the case, which was handled by four French investigators, will add fire to the already looming diplomatic tensions between France and its former colony.
Bernard Borrel's body was found soaked in gasoline and half burned outside the Djiboutian capital in October 1995. But an inquiry into the death by the Djibouti government ruled that the judge had committed suicide, a claim Mr Borrel's widow, Elisabeth Borrel, vehemently disputed, alleging that her husband's death was ordered by President Guelleh.
At first, French investigators subscribed to the Djiboutian side of the story, but a recent medical and legal studies conducted by the French confirmed that he was indeed murdered.
Shifting from its previous stance, the French Justice Ministry today issued a statement, stating "with regard to international custody and the law, heads of state have the same immunity as diplomats, and as a result they cannot be required to testify in a French judicial system."
It added that requests which are addressed to persons immune from prosecution "must obey the particular forms envisaged by the law."
In January 2005, a French judge issued arrest warrants against Djibouti officials - including the country's Security Chief and State Prosecutor, Hassan Saeed and Djama Souleiman - accusing them of interfering with witnesses in the ongoing investigation into the death.
Mr Saeed was accused of forcing an army officer to lie to the inquiry commission probing into the case. He had since then fled the country and was now a witness in the French court.
However, the Djiboutian government insisted that France had no legal mandate to summon its officials covered by diplomatic immunity.
This followed a diplomatic row between the two countries, with Djiboutian authorities expelling six French aid workers, which upset French that had previously enjoyed excellent relations with the small East African country since it got independent in 1977.
According to French authorities, these aid workers were "technical assistants" on the French pay roll, contributing to "the economic and social development of Djibouti" in the sectors of health, education, public safety and rural development.
Paris further said it "regretted" Djibouti's decision to expel the six aid workers. "France remains attached, more than ever, to maintain a strong cooperation in total partnership with Djibouti."
The reopening of the case has attracted swift media reaction in France, with some accusing Djiboutian authorities of hiding something under their sleeves during the 1995 investigations.
Besides, the state-owned 'Radio France Internationale' (RFI) - which at the time was widely received and listened to in Djibouti - became so instrumental in the case that it had dedicated a special programme on the Borrel case, thus questioning the integrity of the Djiboutian authorities at home.
The Djiboutian government decided to close the 'RFI' transmitter in the country in January last year.
Before the closure, the Djiboutian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a strongly-worded statement, protesting against the French media coverage of the Borrel case and the Paris court's summoning of Mr Saeed.
According to Ali Abdi Farah, Djibouti Foreign Minister, since 1999, facts had been seriously distorted. He said the legal proceedings surrounding the death of Mr Borrel in 1995 had been conducted by French officials in Djibouti, including French police, military and health officials.
"Djibouti authorities did not at any point interfere with the process," he argued.
French officials later supported Mr Farah's statement, maintaining that Djiboutian authorities had never interfered in the Borrel case. It had been a French investigation, relying on "the excellent cooperation of Djiboutian authorities and justice" in full transparency. French investigators had been assured full access to all places, persons and information they needed, even to classified military secrets, the Quai d'Orsay emphasises.
France traditionally has been the ex-colony's main development partner, providing significant amounts of aid and financial support to the strategically placed country. Some 2,700 French troops remain stationed in Djibouti under agreements signed at independence.
With the international 'War on Terrorism', however, Djibouti has increased its international importance and reduced its dependence on Paris. Some 1,800 US troops now are stationed in Djibouti, which is the new headquarters for the anti-terrorism Indian Ocean task force. Even Germany has now a military base in the country. The new foreign military presence also contributes significantly to the Djiboutian economy.
With this newfound self-confidence, Foreign Minister Farah last year made it clear that Djibouti would not accept any French humiliation regarding the Borrel case. Djiboutian viewpoints have not changed since that, something President Guelleh is expected to tell his French counterpart at the current Africa-France summit in Cannes.
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