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Ivorian Police Officer Gets 17 Years in Jail for Murder of French Journalist - 2004-01-22

An Ivorian policeman has been sentenced to 17 years in jail for killing a French radio journalist last year. The three-day trial highlighted tensions between foreign journalists and southern Ivorians since the start of a civil war.

The civilian judge at the military tribunal announced the guilty verdict in Abidjan late Thursday. The 17-year sentence is two years more than prosecutors requested.

The policeman, Theodore Seri, was convicted of killing Radio France International journalist Jean Helene on the night of October 21 outside police headquarters. The two men argued before the deadly shooting took place.

The family of Mr. Helene was awarded damages of about $200,000.

Before the verdict was read, supporters of the policeman, who were surrounding the courtroom, were asked to leave so calm could prevail.

When he learned his conviction, the 28-year-old policeman again proclaimed his innocence while being escorted away.

Soon after, while journalists were leaving the courtroom, the supporters of the policeman, who wore T-shirts proclaiming him a national hero, started booing and pushing.

The defense lawyer, Charles Kignima, immediately said he would lodge an appeal on procedural grounds.

Mr. Kignima said he is not surprised by the speedy verdict, but he says the trial took place under what he called insurmountable international pressure for a conviction.

The lawyer for the French-based watchdog group Reporters Without Borders, Guillaume Prigent, who took part in the trial, called the convicted policeman a predator against press freedom. He hopes the verdict will mark a return to freedom of expression in Ivory Coast.

Mr. Prigent said foreign journalist face constant intimidation from security forces and other Ivorians, as was the case during the trial. He added that says many opposition journalists and vendors of opposition newspapers face threats on a daily basis.

Many Ivorians in the south, including President Laurent Gbagbo, have accused foreign journalists of siding with northern-based rebels since their insurgency began in 2002.

Mr. Helene had reported about Africa for about 15 years.