Madagascar: Trial of alleged masterminds of attempted coup begins

5 months ago 3255

Twenty people including two Frenchmen went on trial in Madagascar on Monday accused of a plot to stage a coup and assassinate President Andry Rajoelina.

The defendants face charges ranging from criminal association to compromising state security and planning to kill the head of state.

The alleged operation has been called the "Apollo 21" plot, although only 20 of an initial 21 suspects were retained for trial.

The defendants "put together a plan to eliminate or neutralise various Malagasy public figures including the head of state," according to the prosecution.

The two Frenchmen are Paul Rafanoharana, 58, a dual French-Malagasy national who is a former advisor to the president, and Philippe Francois, 54, an ex-colonel in the French army, who ran an investment company in Madagascar called Tsarafirst.

The two men's wives are also among the defendants.

A clean-shaven Rafanoharana, wearing a dark blue suit and black glasses, smiled repeatedly to friends in the public throughout the first hours of the court sitting.

Francois, wearing a white shirt, appeared thin and tired.

Journalists were allowed to attend the public hearing, although cameras have been banned.

Defence lawyers said the hearings should last three or four days.

Dozens of special forces and police officers lined the room's faded yellow walls, an AFP stringer said at the scene. Some were armed and in plainclothes.

Rafanoharana's lawyers used the first day of the trial to raise alleged procedural flaws since his arrest on July 20. They also denounced confidentiality breaches on which judges are expected to rule on Tuesday.

Some of the 20 have been placed under legal supervision while others, including the two French nationals, are in prison detention.

- 'Unjust' -

Arlette Rafanomadio, defending Rafanoharana and his wife, told AFP at the weekend that the trial was "unjust".

"We haven't had enough time to prepare our defence strategy, and access to our clients has been difficult," she said.

In a case whose supporting documents run to 400 pages, she was able to speak to her clients for just half an hour on Friday, Rafanomadio added.

Francois, who has been living on the Indian Ocean island nation since 2020, had long been planning to move back to France, said his French lawyer Etienne de Villepin.

My client is "above all suspicion", he told AFP.

As a Frenchman, Francois is being used by Madagascar's government to distract the public from "catastrophic" economic and sanitary conditions on the island, he said.

Rajoelina had speculated on links to France two weeks after authorities cracked down on the alleged plotters.

"We will have to wait for the investigation to reveal whether or not it was an isolated act," the president said on national television.

A group of Francois' former classmates at France's elite Saint-Cyr military academy said in a statement that they were certain of his innocence and urged "the calmest debates possible and respect for the defendants' rights" during the trial.

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