By Gregoire Pourtier (AFP) – Aug 28, 2010
ANTANANARIVO — Madagascar's exiled former president Marc Ravalomanana was sentenced Saturday to hard labour for life over what are known as the February 7, 2009 killings, his third sentence since his ouster.
"Mr. Ravalomanana has been sentenced in absentia to hard labour for life for murder and being an accessory to murder," said Hanitra Razafimanantsoa, a lawyer for the ousted president, in exile in South Africa since March 2009.
On February 7, 2009, the presidential guard fired without warning on supporters of the island's current strongman Andry Rajoelina making their way to the presidency, killing at least 30 people and wounding more than 100.
The accused, 19 in all, were defended by two assessors after their lawyers decided to walk out at the beginning of the hearing citing "flagrant abuse of the rights of the defence", Razafimanantsoa said, adding that she and her client had yet to decide if they would appeal.
"For him it's not a ruling to be taken seriously, for the justice system has been instrumentalised by the regime," she said, adding: "The aim is to sentence him so he can't return to Madagascar and run in future elections".
"I reject this verdict because it's stupid, it's ridiculous," Ravalomanana told AFP in South Africa.
Calling it a "mock trial", Ravalomanana said its true purpose was to prevent him for running for president again and disrupt talks on resolving Madagascar's political crisis.
Joseph Breham, a lawyer representing an association of victims of the February 7 killings, AV7, said the trial was "fair" and "respected international standards".
He told AFP the accused -- 14 of whom did not appear in court -- and their counsel employed "empty-chair" procedural tactics in order to discredit the court ruling.
"Throughout the trial all the lawyers who were present were able to put their arguments across normally," Breham said.
"One truth came across pretty clearly: there was a massacre that was planned and organised by the former president and his security chief, among others."
This latest sentence in absentia is Ravalomanana's third since his ouster. He was handed four years' jail and a fine for a case of conflict of interest in the purchase of a 60-million-dollar presidential jet and five years' hard labour over a land purchase.
He dismissed the sentence over the jet as meaningless.
The latest hearing, which held this week in the capital Antananarivo, made waves with supporters and opponents of the ousted president turning up in large numbers at the court.
The February 2009 killings were triggered when Andry Rajoelina, a former DJ who was then mayor of Antananarivo but who proclaimed himself in charge of running the country, named a "prime minister" that thousands of his supporters wanted to install at the presidency.
The Indian Ocean island has been mired in political crisis since Rajoelina's power grab in May 2009. International efforts to put an end to the turmoil have so far been fruitless and the country's already poor economic situation has worsened with a suspension of foreign aid.
In the latest deal aimed at breaking the deadlock, the island's political parties have given proposed names for the country's next prime minister to Rajoelina, sources said earlier this month.
The accord concluded on August 13 calls on its signatories to "work together and pool their efforts in the search for a solution to end the crisis."
It further calls for a constitutional referendum to be held on November 17, parliamentary elections in March next year and a first round of presidential polls on May 4, 2011.
A series of other attempted deals have failed to be implemented, leaving the island in institutional limbo as Rajoelina's regime is not recognised by the international community.
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