Journo remains behind bars in Niger

Niamey, Niger - A court in Niger on Tuesday denied bail to journalist Moussa Kaka, behind bars since September for alleged links with a Tuareg rebel movement that has since threatened uranium mining in the north.

Kaka, who is a correspondent for Radio France Internationale, was jailed on September 26 on the strength of wiretap phone tapes the prosecutor presented as evidence against him for complicity to undermine the authority of the state.

The Niamey appeals court also overturned a lower judge's decision that these tapes should be deemed illegal and thrown out as evidence, Kaka's lawyer Moussa Coulibaly said.

President Mamadou Tandja's government refuses any dealings with the Movement of Niger People for Justice (MNJ), which emerged in February 2007 in the Agadez region of the landlocked, arid west African country.

The government has cracked down hard on both Niger and foreign journalists held to have had any dealings with the rebels and Kaka faces the death sentence if convicted of charges against him.

RFI management in Paris reacted with "astonishment at the judges' decision" and stated that it would do all it legally could to obtain the swift release of its correspondent, saying he had been targeted though "every act he is accused of is part of the normal work of a journalist doing his job".

International watchdog Reporters Without Borders also expressed dismay at an "incomprehensible and disappointing" ruling.

"We repeat that Moussa Kaka is innocent of the crimes of which he is accused and has no place in prison, where he has been unjustly detained for 145 days," an RSF statement said.

The MNJ, led by Aghali Alambo, has denounced a 1995 peace agreement that led to the disbanding of previous rebel movements by 2000, when weapons were burned symbolically at a Peace Flame ceremony in Agadez.

It has clashed with the army, taken about 30 mainly military hostages and in January threatened to attack uranium mines and shipments, particularly those of French nuclear giant Areva, and bring a halt to production.

MNJ head Alambo is close to the veteran Tuareg chief Rhiss Ag Boula, who in the 1990s coordinated a dozen rebel fronts and then signed the peace deal with the Niamey authorities.

Other Tuareg leaders of that time on Monday issued a statement that partly disavowed Ag Boula, said threats against mining interests "only commit him" and reaffirmed their own commitment to the peace accords.

The MNJ wants Tuaregs, traditionally nomadic Berber peoples of the Sahara desert, to be included in Niger's army and paramilitary corps and the mining sector itself, arguing that the population reaps little benefit from it.

The former rebels who stick by the accords are in a majority and accept that the authorities made efforts to take fighters into the security forces, provide a degree of self-government to Tuareg zones, and engage in a development process with the the help of foreign donors.

Niger, however, remains one of the poorest countries in the world and many disgruntled ex-rebels have either deserted the army for the MNJ or joined its ranks because they have run out of patience waiting for work.

The government considers that MNJ leaders are no more than "bandits and drug traffickers" and imposed a state of emergency extending military powers in the Tuareg regions.

Another journalist and editor of the fortnightly Air-Info based in Agadez, Ibrahim Manzo, was jailed for four months without trial until an appeal court in the town of Zinder gave him bail on February 6.

Two French journalists employed by the Franco-German TV channel Arte, Pierre Creisson and Thomas Dandois, were held for a month then bailed on January 18 and allowed to fly back to France, but charges against them still stand. - AFP

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