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Guinea's President Intervenes to Free 2 from Prison

In Guinea, a former government minister and a businessman described as the country's richest citizen were recently released from jail after the intervention of President Lansana Conté. The two men had been arrested for violating a judicial order to stay in the capital, Conakry, while under investigation for corruption. Naomi Schwarz reports for VOA from our West Africa bureau in Dakar.

The ailing president of Guinea made a surprise public appearance on Saturday. He went to the central police station in Conakry, the capital, to secure the release of two prominent Guineans, Mamadou Sylla and Fodé Soumah.

Sylla, owner of a business called Futurelec Holding, had been arrested on December 6. The government accuses him of improperly obtaining $22 million from the central bank of Guinea. Two days later, Soumah was also arrested. The government alleges that the former Central Bank deputy governor helped Sylla get the money from the bank.

However, Sylla claims the government owes him more $20 million and has been fighting to get it back.

Mamadou Taran Diallo, anti-corruption activist at the Guinean Association for Transparency, says that for the past five years, this legal battle has polarized the country and has dominated relations between the state and the private sector.

A statement from a presidential spokesman said Sylla and Soumah were released because they were cooperating with the investigation. It also cited Sylla's health. He suffers from diabetes and requires regular doses of insulin.

Dustin Sharp, analyst for U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, says the case against the two men is not just about corruption.

"I would attribute it more strongly to the war between [rival] political clans than I would [to] larger efforts to stamp out corruption in Guinea," he said.

Newspaper commentators in Guinea say Sylla's imprisonment may have been a result of disputes he has had with powerful Presidential Affairs Minister Fodé Bangoura. Bangoura is viewed by many Guineans as the de facto leader of the country. President Conté is very ill and spends most of his time in his village.

Sharp says there is a lot of political maneuvering going on Guinea in case President Conté relinquishes all power.

Spokespeople for the president have said that the Sylla and Soumah's release is provisional, and that the judicial process will continue. Diallo says that Guineans are watching to see if there is an official resolution to the case, and if it is determined that Sylla owes money to the government, that it will be repaid.