A key Benin opposition leader went on trial on terrorism charges on Friday, nine months after she was arrested just before President Patrice Talon’s re-election in April.
Reckya Madougou, one of the opposition leaders banned from running in the election, was arrested in March accused of trying to disrupt the ballot and destablise the country.
Her trial opened just days after the same special court sentenced another opposition figure Joel Aivo to 10 years in prison.
Critics say the Economic Crime and Terrorism Court or Criet, has been used by Talon’s regime to crack down on the opposition and pushed Benin into authoritarianism.
Madougou faces a 20-year sentence if found guilty of financing terrorism and acts of terrorism among other charges.
She arrived in a prison van to the Porto-Novo court where some of her supporters waited for her, some wearing white T-shirts with her image and the words: “Free Reckya Madougou”.
“The dossier is completely empty… because it is exclusively a political accusation,” one of her lawyers, Antoine Vey, told AFP.
“If the trial were fair, there is no doubt she would be released and fully acquitted,” he said. “We are fearful of a heavy sentence.”
Since the beginning of March, Madougou has been incarcerated in the civil prison of Misserete. Her lawyers have repeatedly warned of “very difficult” conditions, with no contact with the outside world except her legal team.
– Political pressure –
Less than a week before the April election, a judge from the special court fled Benin denouncing political pressure to make rulings, in particular in the case of Madougou’s arrest.
Government officials dismiss claims of political interference and say Benin’s judiciary is independent.
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 first elected in 2016.
Some opposition leaders have fled the country while others were disqualified from running in elections, or targeted for investigation.
Aivo, a professor who had been held for eight months, was found guilty on Tuesday of plotting against the state and money laundering.
Aivo, who was also barred from running in the election, was arrested on April 15, four days after the ballot that saw Talon returned to power.
The same special court in 2018 also sentenced Sebastien Ajavon, an opposition figure who came third in the previous election, to 20 years in prison for drug trafficking.
He was again sentenced in early March in absentia to a second sentence of five years in prison for “forgery, forgery, and fraud”. He now lives in exile.