I Coast trial for French reporter murder

20th January 2004, Comments 0 comments

ABIDJAN, Jan 20 (AFP) - An Ivory Coast police officer went on trial Tuesday for the shooting death last October of a French radio journalist that brought widespread criticism of the authorities in the west African state, accused of failing to protect foreign media.

ABIDJAN, Jan 20 (AFP) - An Ivory Coast police officer went on trial Tuesday for the shooting death last October of a French radio journalist that brought widespread criticism of the authorities in the west African state, accused of failing to protect foreign media.

Sergeant Theodore Seri is accused of shooting 50-year-old Jean Helene, a correspondent for Radio France International (RFI), at point-blank range last October 21 as he waited outside national police headquarters for the release of several opposition politicians.

As Seri was brought into the courtroom, court security officers jostled photographers and cameraman as they tried to take pictures of and film the accused, and a group of onlookers shouted their support for Seri.

Adding to the mayhem, one uniformed officer blew his whistle, as the presiding judge tried to restore order in the court by shouting into a microphone and threatening to bar the public from the hearing.

Helene's brother and sister as well as lawyers for the family and RFI were among the hundreds of people packing the tiny courtroom for the public trial.

Seated in the audience alongside journalists, supporters of Seri and curious onlookers, were the ministers of security and defence, Martin Bleou and Rene Amani, an AFP reporter said.

Another 200 people were crammed into the hallway outside the courtroom at Abidjan's central court of appeals, craning to hear the process being broadcast over loudspeakers.

Tuesday's session would be devoted to defence arguments that a civil suit brought concurrently by RFI and media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres should be thrown out, court sources told AFP.

The prosecution was to present its case on Wednesday, including forensic evidence that showed that the bullet that lodged in Helene's left temple was fired from Seri's Kalashnikov rifle.

Seven police officers are to be among the eight witnesses to testify during the trial. The eighth witness is the lawyer for the opposition politicians Helene was waiting to interview on their release from Abidjan police headquarters in October.

A verdict is expected Wednesday.

The two-day military trial presided by a civilian judge had been due to begin in December but was put back one month because of its proximity to the year-end holidays.

"This is not a special trial; this is the case of an Ivorian who committed a crime and must now face the full force of the law," government commissioner and prosecutor Ange Kessi told AFP.

An Ivorian military prosecutor last October said Helene's death was "intentional, and not unintentional as Sergeant Theodore Seri said." The police sergeant could face at least 20 years in prison if convicted, the prosecutor said.

Security was high at the appeals court Tuesday to guard against any protests.

A re-enactment of the shooting in November turned nasty when supporters of Seri defied a security cordon to taunt, harass and pelt foreign journalists with stones.

Ivorian authorities have come in for heavy criticism following the killing of Helene, a longtime African correspondent for French radio, with rights activists both in Africa and abroad saying his killing proved that insufficient protection was provided to foreign journalists working in Ivory Coast.

Reporters from former colonial power France have been particularly subjected to harassment by Ivorian officials and security forces since the September 2002 start of a political and military crisis that has split the world's top cocoa producer in two.

© AFP

                                Subject: France news

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