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Interrogations, Arrests Mount in Ivory Coast Cocoa Probe


More interrogations and arrests are being carried out in Ivory Coast as part of a massive anti-corruption effort for the country's lucrative cocoa sector. Prosecutors opened their investigation into fraud last month after a series of scandals in which massive amounts of money went unaccounted for. VOA's Nico Colombant has more from our regional bureau in Dakar.

Journalists following the cocoa investigation in Abidjan said three more top officials had been called in for questioning.

They also reported Ivorian judges are in France, investigating bank accounts linked to Ivorian cocoa promotion, cooperative and export bodies.

Friday, a member of President Laurent Gbagbo's Ivorian Popular Front party, Jean-Claude Bayou, was the latest official implicated in the probe to be put in jail.

Following the arrest, the president's party released a statement calling for calm and said all Ivorians should respect the rule of law, and the authority of the president. It also said all those implicated, even jailed, should be considered innocent, at this point of the process, until proven guilty.

Cocoa officials say they have been well treated in jail and that they held a religious ceremony behind bars on Sunday.

Prosecutors opened their investigation into the country's cocoa institutions on May 30, publishing an initial list of 23 people being investigated.

The jailing of most of them has angered officials at the national association of cocoa producers.

One of its members, Laurent Kouassi, says that money from the cocoa bodies is being spent to help farmers and producers with many different projects. He says if there is corruption in the sector, then it is by everyone, including ministers, and the president.

President Gbagbo is currently at the African Union summit in Egypt. Journalists in Ivory Coast say there is nervousness among some ministers, thinking they may be fired after he comes back, and then investigated as well in the sweeping cocoa probe.

The investigation comes in the run-up to scheduled November 30 elections, in which Mr. Gbagbo will face fierce competition from two opposition leaders. The elections aim to reunite the world's leading cocoa producer, divided in two since a northern rebel insurgency in late 2002.

The cocoa producer Kouassi says since there is so much talk about peace, producers do not want to go on strike right now. But he says negotiations must take place, so that it is not just certain officials who are scapegoats.

One facet of the probe concerns the purchase of a former Nestle company plant in Fulton, in the northeastern U.S. state of New York. U.S officials are also investigating whether some officials from the Ivorian cocoa sector laundered tens of millions of dollars they received to develop the plant.

The London-based watchdog group, Global Witness, has also been closely following the issue. The author of a recent report on the Ivorian cocoa sector, Maria Lopez, says the investigation is crucial, but that more is still needed to reform the industry, which six million Ivorians depend on.

"Basically, we think that of course, the investigation is very good news," said Lopez. "The other good news is that the government also published financial data on what was going in these national cocoa institutions, so they have levels of bank accounts, how much money is left, but we think that does not address really transparency in the long term. For that, there needs to be another set of dispositions taken."

Lopez says Ivorian leadership has hinted structural progress may soon be on its way, but she says she wants action in this area as well.

"The Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo talked last week about some kind of anti-corruption legislation and we think he needs to be taken up on that," she said. "We think there is some room for a law demanding cocoa exporting companies operating in Cote d'Ivoire publish what they pay the government and the cocoa institutions. This way, it is much more difficult for money to go missing without anyone noticing. If you publish regularly, at least yearly, what you as a company has been paying, then it is easier in particular for civil society and for Ivorian citizens as a whole to watch what the government is publicizing. We think there should be legislation if the president is really serious about ensuring transparency in the long term."

Ivory Coast is the world's leading producer of cocoa beans. During the 1990s the sector was rocked by allegations there was child labor on many cocoa plantations. U.S lawmakers have been actively involved in trying to end those practices.

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