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Ivory Coast Trial Opens of Policemen Charged with Killing Journalist - 2004-01-20

The trial of a policeman accused of killing a French journalist in Ivory Coast has gotten off to a rowdy start.

The ringing of a bell marked the start of the trial in Abidjan of policeman Theodore Seri. He is accused of shooting to death Radio France International reporter Jean Helene on October 21.

Mr. Helene was killed outside police headquarters while awaiting the release of political activists.

Mr. Seri has said the shooting was accidental. He appeared in court wearing a white T-shirt and blue jeans.

While he spoke, foreign journalists who tried to take his picture were roughed up by other policemen who were providing security at the trial.

The photographers were then escorted out of the courtroom, where they were booed by onlookers while a court official announced on a loudspeaker that pictures inside would no longer be allowed.

Foreign journalists have been accused by many southern Ivorians, including President Laurent Gbagbo, of supporting the cause of northern-based rebels since the rebels launched their insurgency in September 2002. This has led to articles in Ivorian newspapers inciting violence against foreign journalists. The policeman on trial is also a southerner.

Once the trial resumed, defense lawyers for the policeman argued that lawyers for Radio France International and for the France-based group Reporters without Borders should not be allowed to take part in the trial, as they intend to do.

The head of the Africa service for Reporters without Borders, Jean-Francois Julliard, says despite the presence of these lawyers, he is doubtful the trial will reveal what really happened on the night of October 21.

"We hope that it will be a fair trial and we hope we will know all the truth, but we also fear that only the policeman who shot Jean Helene could be convicted," said Mr. Julliard. "We feel that we [will] never know all the responsibilities in this affair because we think he is not the only one involved in the murder of Jean Helene."

The trial is taking place under the rules of a military tribunal, with a jury composed of members of the army and security forces, but it is being presided over by a civilian judge.

Witnesses will include several police officers.

Inside the courtroom, several-hundred people were present, including family members of the late Mr. Helene. Outside, heavy security was preventing hundreds of curious onlookers from entering the court's compound in downtown Abidjan.