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Niger Journalist Faces Life in Prison for Conspiracy Charges

Multiple human rights and press associations have condemned the detention of journalist Moussa Kaka in Niger. He faces life imprisonment if found guilty of supporting a rebellion against the government. Phuong Tran has more from VOA's West Africa Bureau in Dakar.

Lawyer Moussa Coulibaly says even though his client, a Nigerien radio correspondent for Radio France International and Reporter Without Borders, has been detained 12 days, the prosecution has not provided proof to back its accusation he conspired with Tuareg rebels to threaten state security.

The prosecution says it has given the court details of tapped phone conversations between Kaka and rebel leaders, who took up arms eight months ago against the government.

Kaka is also the director of the privately-owned Radio Saraouniya, which has aired interviews with rebel leaders fighting under the group name, Niger Movement for Justice.

Kaka's lawyer says the prosecution's file against Kaka is based on typical activities of a journalist, such as researching a story, and calling sources to verify information. Coulibaly says he thinks these are acts of journalism, not crime, as the government has charged.

Coulibaly says he expects the prosecution's response to his request for additional information within one month.

The state recently declared a state of emergency in the north and has restricted journalists' broadcasts and photography of the rebellion. It also recently suspended publication of an independent paper in the northeast, Air Info, for three months and Kaka's Radio France International broadcasts for one month, saying the journalists' reporting was not objective, charges the journalists deny.

A member of the government's communications council, Mamane Mamadou, says these restrictions against the press are justified during times of conflict.

He says the country is in an exceptional period of rebellion, and must be careful. The government spokesman says Niger has had other rebellions. He says the rebellion can spread and turn Niger into a Rwanda or Burundi, torn apart by civil war.

Tuareg rebels in Niger last took up arms in the 1990s with similar complaints. Fighting ended in 1995 with a peace accord that current fighters say has not been honored. The government says it has fulfilled most of the peace deal.

Leonard Vincent with the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, one of Kaka's employers, says the government is using state security as an excuse to censor journalists.

"We understand it is a special situation, but it is no reason to limit the freedom to investigate on the reality of what is going on in the country," he said. "The government says they [fighters] are bandits. Behind this banditry, the journalists have a tendency to say the truth. Behind this banditry, there are political demands."

The Nigerien government has refused to negotiate with the fighters until they put down their arms, dismissing them as drug traffickers.

Since last February, the rebels have launched attacks in the uranium-rich northeast causing dozens of deaths and hostage taking.

The rebels complain of government neglect and demand a larger share of uranium royalties. Despite the country's mineral wealth, the United Nations has ranked Niger's living conditions as the worst in the world for the past two years.

Nigerien President Mamadou Tandja promised during his 2004 campaign to abolish prison penalties for press-related offenses. A government commission proposed last year replacing prison sentences with fines, but the 1999 press law remains unchanged.