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Prosecutor seeks three-year jail terms for detained editors

(RSF/IFEX) - 7 July 2011 - Reporters Without Borders strongly condemns the three-year jail sentence that a Bangui prosecutor, Arnauld Djoubaye, requested yesterday for Les Collines de l'Oubangui editor Faustin Bambou and Média Plus editor Emmanuel Cyrus Sandy on charges of inciting violence and hatred in a case involving President François Bozizé's son, defence minister Jean-Francis Bozizé.

According to one of the journalists' lawyers, the prosecutor also requested a five-year suspension of their civil and political rights and fine of 1 million CFA francs (150 euros). The court is expected to issue its verdict on 11 July.

The charges against the two journalists were prompted by their coverage of protests by retired soldiers who accuse the defence minister of misusing funds that the European Union donated for their unpaid pensions.

"If these journalists are convicted, it would be a serious setback for civil liberties in this country," defence lawyer Nicolas Tiangaye told Reporters Without Borders. "We fought to get a press law that ended prison sentences for journalists in defamation cases and we are shocked by what is happening now. After one step forward, we have taken two steps back."

The arbitrary manner in which Faustin Bambou was arrested and the way the proceedings are being conducted ever since has badly damaged the credibility of the country's judicial system.

"After being arrested as if they were common criminals, they are now facing absurd sentences," Reporters Without Borders said. "We call on the Bangui court to reject the prosecutor's request. It is high time that they were freed."

Bambou has been held since 27 May, while Sandy has been held since 15 June. Following a hearing on 29 June, the prosecutor's office pressed charges of inciting violence and hatred under articles 292 and 295, claiming that the journalists were arrested in the act of committing this crime.

A request by the journalists' lawyers for the case to be heard under a February 2005 law on Freedom of Communication and for the withdrawal of the existing charges was rejected by the court on 1 July. Since then, the defence lawyers have been accusing the prosecutors and the court of a judicial confusion that violates the country's media freedom laws.

According to Tiangaye, the complaint brought by the defence minister alleges defamation, an offence that has been decriminalized since 2005. The prosecutor is trying to define the offence in political terms, he says.

Jules Gaveaux was the presiding judge at yesterday's hearing, at which the defence minister did not appear as prosecution witness. Some of the retired soldiers who have been staging the protests nonetheless offered to be defence witnesses and to corroborate the claims that Bambou made in a series of articles beginning on 28 February.

The retired soldiers insist that, after confirming to them that the European Union had donated 5.15 million euros to cover their pensions, the defence minister used the money to settle disputes that he considered to be more urgent. The prosecutor was clearly upset by these claims and refused to allow the retired soldiers to testify.

Four newspapers - Le Confident, Le Citoyen, Le Démocrate and L'Hirondelle - did not publish on 4 July in a show of solidarity with the two detained journalists.

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