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Mauritania frees blogger jailed for ‘blasphemy’

Cheikh Ould Mohamed Ould Mkheitir had been initially sentenced to death but was then given a jail term on appeal

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Mauritania frees blogger jailed for 'blasphemy'

Mauritania has released a blogger who drew international attention after being accused of blasphemy, his lawyer and the campaign group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said Tuesday.

Cheikh Ould Mohamed Ould Mkheitir, 36, had been initially sentenced to death but was then given a jail term on appeal.

He remained in detention despite having already served the sentence — a situation that sparked a chorus of protest from rights groups.

“(He) was released yesterday from the place where he was under house arrest… (but) is not completely free in his movements,” his attorney Fatimata Mbaye told reporters.

Mkheitir “is no longer in Nouakchott,” the Mauritanian capital, Mbaye said, without giving further details.

RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said in a statement: “We are deeply relieved that he has finally been freed after being held for more than five and a half years in almost total isolation.

“For nothing more than a social network post, he was subjected to a terrible ordeal that violated a decision by his own country’s judicial system. This blogger was francophone Africa’s longest-held citizen-journalist.”

Mkheitir’s release came in the final days of the presidency of Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who had previously argued that to free Mkheitir would endanger the blogger as well as the public.

Death sentence –

Mkheitir was sentenced to death for blasphemy in December 2014 after he wrote a blog that challenged decisions taken by the Prophet Mohammed and his companions during holy wars in the seventh century.

He repented after being given that sentence, prompting an appeal court on November 2017 to downgrade the punishment to a two-year jail term — a decision that sparked protests in the country.

His lawyers said he should have been released immediately, having already spent four years behind bars, but he remained confined.

On June 20, Abdel Aziz defended Mkheitir’s continued detention, saying it was justified by “his personal security as well as the country’s.”

“We know that from the point of the view of the law, he should be freed, but for security reasons, we cannot place the life of more than four million Mauritanians at risk,” he said.

In an open letter published the following day, 10 rights groups, including the media watchdog RSF, called on Abdel Aziz to use his final weeks in office to end the “illegal detention”.

Abdel Aziz and religious leaders then launched a process of “preparing national opinion” for Mkheitir’s release, under which he formally repented again, on social media.

On Thursday, Abdel Aziz will hand over the presidency to Mohamed Ould Cheikh Ghazouani, a former general and close ally, after serving a maximum two terms in office.

Ghazouani won presidential elections on June 22 with 52 per cent of the vote, according to official figures disputed by the opposition.

RSF said the case of Mkheitir, also spelled Mkhaitir, had been the main cause for Mauritania’s sharp fall in its World Press Freedom Index.

Since 2016, Mauritania has plummeted 46 places in the rankings — a decline outstripped only by Tanzania — and is currently placed 94th out of 180 countries.

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Central Africa News

Gabon’s Ali Bongo vows to “complete mission” despite health challenges

Bongo said he was “fiercely determined” to push ahead with a campaign against graft

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Gabonese President Ali Bongo vows to "complete mission" despite failing health

Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba on Wednesday completed a decade in office, vowing to push ahead with economic reforms and an anti-corruption drive despite questions over his health after suffering a stroke nearly a year ago.

“I feel good. And feeling better and better each day,” Bongo said in an interview published on Wednesday in the pro-government daily, l’Union. 

“I will complete my mission.”

Bongo said he was “fiercely determined” to push ahead with a campaign against graft. Government departments have been shaken up in recent weeks with a string of top-level changes.

“Mistakes were made in the past, but they won’t be able to be made again in the future,” Bongo said.

“Over time, the standards I require of government members has increased while my level of patience has fallen,” he said.

During his months-long absence abroad for treatment, speculation over Bongo’s fitness surged and the army quashed a brief attempted coup.

At one point, his spokesman was forced to deny rumours that Bongo had died and been replaced by a lookalike, while opposition members made an unsuccessful attempt to have a court assess whether he was fit to rule.

Since returning home, Bongo has attended several well-scripted public events, but every appearance is widely scrutinised for any signs of any disability.

READ: Gabonese President Bongo undergoes ‘routine medical checks’ in London

Nostalgia for father –

The drama has played out against the backdrop of a stuttering economy in the country of two million. 

Bongo initiated an array of major infrastructure projects after coming to power, such as new roads and stadiums, which drew on a flurry of investment from China.

But oil prices slumped after 2014, provoking an economic crisis and discontent, although the country’s political opposition is fractured.

There is widespread nostalgia for the free-spending reign of Bongo’s father, Omar Bongo Ondimba, who ruled the country for 42 years until his death in 2009, when he was succeeded by his son.

“Gabon has fallen into deep sleep,” said 33-year-old Gael Ndong, reflecting a commonly-expressed opinion.

“It was better before.”

“Ali Bongo has never enjoyed the legitimacy that his father was able to have,” said Florence Bernault, a professor of sub-Saharan history at Sciences Po in Paris.

His reputation was further battered after elections in 2016 marred by deadly violence and allegations of fraud, she added. His current term ends in 2023. 

READ: Gabon’s Ali Bongo makes post-stroke appearance

Diversify –

Under Bongo senior, Gabon became an oil major. Today, hydrocarbons account for 80 per cent of exports and almost half of GDP.

Under Bongo junior, the government is trying to diversify the economy, turning to managed forestry, minerals and other underdeveloped sectors to pick up the slack.

But the president’s vow 10 years ago to place Gabon on the path to emerging nation status remains “far away” from attainment, said Gabon economist Mays Mouissi.

Gabon may rank among Africa’s most prosperous countries but still badly lacks adequate roads, hospitals, homes and schools.

“Bongo did not know how to efficiently use the oil wealth he benefited from at the start of his first term,” said Mouissi, describing the “lost decade” as a wasted opportunity. Joblessness among the young is more than a third.

Bongo, in Wednesday’s interview, argued the reforms are “beginning to bear fruit.”

READ: Ali Bongo joins independence celebration in Libreville

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) this month predicted growth will reach 3.4 per cent this year compared with 0.8 per cent in 2018, although “ambitious macroeconomic measures and far-reaching structural reforms” were still needed.

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Former South African President Jacob Zuma delays corruption trial with appeal

If it goes ahead, the trial would be the first time Zuma faces a court on graft charges

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Former South African President Jacob Zuma delays corruption trial with appeal
South Africa's embattled former president Jacob Zuma (C) appears in the Pietermaritzburg High Court where he is appearing on corruption charges, in what would be the first time he faces trial for graft despite multiple accusations, in Pietermaritzburg on October 15, 2019. - Zuma stands accused of taking kickbacks before he became president from a 51-billion-rand ($3.4-billion) purchase of fighter jets, patrol boats and military equipment manufactured by five European firms, including French defence company Thales. (Photo by Michele Spatari / POOL / AFP)

The corruption trial of South Africa’s embattled former President Jacob Zuma has been delayed again after his lawyer announced Tuesday he would appeal.

The last-minute move pushes back a long-awaited trial over bribery allegations dating back to a 1990s arms deal. Zuma dismissed the charges as a conspiracy.

If it goes ahead, the trial would be the first time Zuma faces a court on graft charges, despite a string of accusations over his long political career.

The High Court in the southeastern city of Pietermaritzburg last week rejected his request to have 16 charges of fraud, graft and racketeering dismissed, clearing the way for the trial to start on Tuesday.

READ: Ex-South African President Jacob Zuma claims he has been vilified

But Zuma’s lawyer Thabani Masuku told the court at the start of the trial that the ex-president would appeal, dragging on a case that has seen numerous legal twists over 15 years.

After the hearing, Zuma told a small group of supporters gathered outside court that “there have been many conspirators against me”. 

“There is no justice that will be served by continuing with this case,” he told the crowd in Zulu.

Zuma was forced to resign as president last year by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party after a nine-year reign marred by corruption allegations and dwindling popularity.

He is accused of taking bribes worth R4 million when he was deputy president from a R51 billion 1999 arms purchase by five European firms, including French defence company Thales.

Both Zuma and Thales, which are accused of paying the bribes and was also to stand trial, deny the charges.

‘Another cunning move’ –

Former South African President Jacob Zuma delays corruption trial with appeal
South Africa’s embattled former president Jacob Zuma (C) appears in the Pietermaritzburg High Court where he is appearing on corruption charges, in what would be the first time he faces trial for graft despite multiple accusations, in Pietermaritzburg on October 15, 2019. (Photo by Michele Spatari / POOL / AFP)

The appeal, which must be filed by November 1, will be heard on November 22. If denied, proceedings are scheduled to resume on the provisional date of February 4.

READ: Jacob Zuma’s son denies offering $40 million bribe to former South African minister

State lawyer Billy Downer told the court that the prosecution believed the appeal would fail and requested the trial starts as soon as possible.

Legal analysts have said a delay would have been likely even without the appeal, given the size of the case.

For its part, Zuma’s defence team maintained that the ex-president had been ready for trial for 14 years.

Legal expert Pierre de Vos of the University of Cape Town said that “if all the courts refuse to hear the appeal, there will be a short delay.”

“If they hear the appeal there will be another year or two before they can begin a trial,” he told reporters, adding that he could face 15 years in jail if found guilty.

Analysts have warned that if Zuma goes on trial, he will drag down with him many leaders of Nelson Mandela’s ANC, which has governed the country since the end of apartheid in 1994.

The opposition Democratic Alliance party in a statement slammed “yet another cunning move by Zuma to avoid jail” and called for the government to ensure the ex-president pay his legal fees.

After a court ruled last year that he should pay his own way, Zuma claimed he was so broke that he had to sell his socks.

‘Teflon president’ –

Former South African President Jacob Zuma delays corruption trial with appeal
South Africa’s embattled former president Jacob Zuma (L) leaves the Pietermaritzburg High Court where he is appearing on corruption charges, in what would be the first time he faces trial for graft despite multiple accusations, in Pietermaritzburg on October 15, 2019. (Photo by Michele Spatari / POOL / AFP)

Critics have dubbed Zuma the “Teflon president” for his reputed ability to evade judicial reckoning.

READ: Former South African President Zuma receives court order to face corruption scandal

He has also been accused of organising the systematic plunder of government coffers in a scandal known as “state capture”.

He appeared at an inquiry into the scandal in July, putting on a defiant performance and denying all wrongdoing.

Zuma’s successor President Cyril Ramaphosa told a conference hosted by the Financial Times in London this week that corruption during Zuma’s administration is estimated to have cost the country more than R500 billion.

Ramaphosa has vowed to tackle deep-seated corruption but faces opposition from powerful senior ANC members, many of whom remain Zuma allies.

“Zuma was in charge for nearly two terms but did very little for us ordinary people,” Sakhile Dube, a 30-year-old clothes seller, told reporters outside the Pietermaritzburg court.

“We are still waiting to see if Ramaphosa can assist us and remedy the situation,” he added. 

READ: Former South African President Zuma withdraws from graft inquiry

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Nigerian police rescues over 300 pupils from another ‘torture house’

Katsina police chief Sanusi Buba told reporters in Daura that the young men were chained and tortured

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Nigerian police rescues over 300 from 'torture house' | News Central
(File photo)

Police in northern Nigeria said on Monday they rescued over 300 young men from an Islamic boarding school where they were chained and sexually abused, the second such operation in a month. 

A police team raided the school in Daura in Katsina state after some students escaped from their hostel on Sunday and poured into the streets in protest.

Katsina police chief Sanusi Buba told reporters in Daura that the young men were chained and tortured.

“We learnt that the inmates here are over 300 and because of the inhuman treatments they are being subjected to they revolted yesterday (Sunday),” he said.

READ: Nigeria’s uncovered torture “school” sparks concerns over state of Islamic schools

“Some of the inmates escaped while…about 60 of them stayed back,” he said, with most of them found in chains.

Buba said the school was established by 78-year-old Muslim cleric, Bello Mai Almajirai, 40 years ago. He later transferred management of the school to his son.

He said the school enrolled students brought by their families to learn the Koran and be treated for drug addiction and other ailments.

Daura which lies 70 kilometres from the state capital and near the border with Niger, is the hometown of President Muhammadu Buhari.

The students are from “various parts of Nigeria”, including Katsina state and neighbouring Niger Republic, said the police chief.

According to Buba, the abused inmates were “subjected to inhuman conditions,” with some of the students revealing that they were sodomised by their teachers.

Police will liaise with the state government to establish the identities of the young men and contact their families to return them home, he said.

READ: Nigerian police rescue over 300 students from abusive ‘school’ in Kaduna

Buba promised to arrest the proprietor and his teachers who managed to escape during the raid but will “face the full wrath of the law”.

Last month, police in nearby Kaduna state, freed more than 300 male students from a similar boarding school where they were chained, tortured and sexually abused.

A high rate of drug use and lack of rehabilitation facilities in northern Nigeria are forcing parents to enrol their children in informal reformatory Islamic schools where they are subjected to abuses.

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