Ivory Coast court frees three journalists

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An Ivory Coast court has freed three journalists, including a Frenchman, who were detained on July 16 in Abidjan for the alleged theft of administrative documents, a judicial source said.

The Frenchman, Theophile Kouamouo, managing editor of the Ivorian paper Le Nouveau Courrier, and Ivorians Stephane Guede and Saint Claver Oula, director of publication and editor in chief, were freed on Monday, the source told AFP.

They had been accused of "stealing administrative documents" and "disclosing the contents of a secret document" concerning the west African country's staple cocoa industry, where they published allegations of corruption.

The document concerned charges drawn up by the office of the public prosecutor, Raymond Tchimou, against prominent figures in the cocoa business, many of whom are now in detention awaiting trial.

The court rejected these charges against the journalists.

However, it sentenced the three men to 15 days' suspension of their paper and to pay a fine of five million CFA francs (7,600 euros / 10,000 dollars) for "publishing information on a judicial inquiry that has not yet been heard in public audience."

Locked up on Friday, the communications councillor for public prosecutor Raymond Tchimou, Patrice Pohe, was also freed from jail.

Last week, the prosecution asked for the three journalists to be jailed for 12 months, but on Monday he called only for one month behind bars and a fine of five million CFA francs for "receiving stolen goods".

The prosecution considered that Pohe was the "thief" in the affair and said he should be imprisoned for two months and fined 100,000 CFA francs (150 euros).

The court found that the theft was unproven, causing an uproar in the court, where many journalists were attending the hearing.

The lawyer for the three journalists, Hivat Tie-Bi, told AFP there was an "important precedent" in the way the bench rejected common law charges and only kept those valid under legislation regulating the press, which rules out imprisonment.

The three journalists were ordered to pay a symbolic franc to a former baron of the cocoa sector, Henri Amouzou, who has been in custody for two years and considered that the newspaper's publication of allegations against him were a stain on his honour.

The United States had expressed concern over the continued detention of the three journalists, while opposition leader Alassane Ouattara had called for their release.

Ivory Coast is the world's leading producer of cocoa.

Opened in October 2007 on the orders of President Laurent Gbagbo, a vast judicial inquiry into the cocoa business led to the arrest in June 2008 of many leading figures, charged with "embezzlement, abuse of public goods and swindling."

A date for the highly sensitive trial of the cocoa barons has yet to be announced.

© 2010 AFP

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