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Ivory Coast Criticized For Sentencing of Coup Plotters - 2002-06-25

Human rights advocates in the Ivory Coast are protesting Monday's sentencing of two men allegedly involved in what the government said was a failed coup attempt in January 2001.

A criminal court in Abidjan condemned businessman Ahmed Bassam to 20 years in prison for allegedly masterminding what the government said was a coup attempt against President Laurent Gbagbo. An army soldier received the same sentence, while two others were acquitted.

Heavy gunfire broke out for several hours on the night of January 7, 2001. However, residents of the area said at the time that they had seen no evidence of a fierce gun battle, except a few broken windows and bullet holes at two broadcasting facilities and a police camp.

Many Ivorians have expressed doubts about whether there was in fact a coup attempt. Some accused the Gbagbo government of staging the incident in order to consolidate its mandate following the contentious elections that brought it to power and ended military rule in October of 2000.

Among those condemning the sentencing is Ibrahim Doumbia, who leads the Ivory Coast Human Rights Movement.

He said it was the government that said there was a coup attempt. "One must understand that this government has never accepted any questioning of whether such a thing happened," Mr. Doumbia added. "So the first question we must ask ourselves is whether what the government has said [that a coup attempt did in fact occur] can be justified."

Seventy-two people were arrested following the January 2001 incident, and Mr. Doumbia said many have been mistreated.

He said the people detained have been tortured. He said, "in the case of one man who was arrested, paramilitary police shot him in the legs in order to make him say what they wanted to hear. There have been very grave instances of torture." Mr. Doumbia said most of those who are detained are being held in a special ward, under the tightest security. "For a long time," he said, "they have not had a right to even short visits. They have not been able to communicate with their lawyers."

Immediately following the January, 2001 incident, the Ivory Coast government implied that its northern neighbors, Mali and Burkina Faso, had backed the coup attempt. The accusation unleashed a wave of attacks by security forces and Ivorian citizens against members of Ivory Coast's vast community of immigrants from those countries, and against Ivorians from the north who, like most Malians and Burkinabes, are Muslims. Many of those arrested following the coup attempt were members of Ivory Coast's northern Dioula ethnic group and presumed supporters of opposition leader Alassane Ouattara and his Rally of the Republicans party. Mr. Ouattara has been at the heart of a political crisis in the Ivory Coast since he was barred from running in the 2000 elections because of what the government said were doubts about whether he was an Ivorian national.

The impasse has continued as the government has yet to issue Mr. Ouattara a certificate of nationality, which could entitle him to run in the next presidential elections in 2005.

His followers plan to hold what they say will be a massive protest rally in Abidjan on July 9.