By Boris Esono Nwenfor
The U.S. Department of State says it is concerned with the systematic targeting of political opposition figures and erosion of space for dissent after a court in Benin sentenced two opposition politicians to prison.
Opposition leader and former justice minister Reckya Madougou were sentenced before a special court in the capital Porto-Novo to 20 years in prison for terrorism. Another opponent of President Patrice Talon, Joel Aivo has been sentenced to 10 years for plotting against the state and laundering money.
“The recent trial and sentencing of political opponents Reckya Madougou and Joel Aivo raise grave concerns about political interference in Benin’s criminal justice system,” Ned Price, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State said in a statement this December 13.
“We are alarmed by the further erosion of space for dissent, overall increased restrictions on participatory self-governance and freedom of expression, and systematic targeting of political opposition figures.”
Benin was long praised for its thriving multi-party democracy in a troubled region. But critics say the West African state’s democracy has steadily eroded under Talon, a 63-year-old cotton magnate.
“Demonstrating to Benin’s citizens and international; partners that the judicial system will not be used for political purpose is essential to restoring Benin’s former reputation as a regional leader in democratic governance and rule of law,” Ned Price, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State added.
Madougou, 47-years-old according to reports was found guilty of “complicity in terrorist acts” by the Economic Crime and Terrorism Court, CRIET. She was arrested back in March and accused of financing and operation to assassinate political figures to prevent the presidential election the following month from going ahead. Her candidacy had earlier been rejected by the electoral commission, according to Reuters.
President Talon was first elected in 2016, defeating the favoured candidate of the outgoing president. But earlier this year, all his main challengers, including Madougou, were excluded from the presidential election, which he won with 86% of the vote.
“This court has deliberately decided to penalize an innocent person,” Madougou said shortly before her sentence was made. “I have never been and I will never be a terrorist.”
“It is a sad day for our judicial system. I maintain that there is no proof,” Robert Dossou, one of Madougou’s lawyers told AFP.
Since coming to power back in 2016, human rights groups and opponents have accused president Talon of upending Benin’s democratic traditions. Many opposition politicians have been arrested and electoral reforms signed by Talon in 2018 disqualified all opposition parties from running for parliament the following year.
In its report on Benin last year, rights group Amnesty International said that “rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly (had been) unduly restricted”, adding that people had been unjustly prosecuted and police were accused of using excessive force.