Critics of Niger’s Tandja caught up in graft row

Source: Reuters

* Niger’s Tandja accused of hijacking judiciary * Critics say using corruption case to neutralise opponents * Move seen adding risks to stability, democracy By Abdoulaye Massalatchi NIAMEY, Sept 15 (Reuters) – A judicial probe into dozens of former parliamentarians in Niger is a bid by President Mamadou Tandja to muzzle critics of his plan to retain power of the uranium-exporting nation, rights groups and opponents said. In recent weeks more than 120 politicians have been targeted in an investigation into misappropriation of public money. Dozens have been charged, a handful locked up and the rest banned from leaving Niger. “The aim is to discredit the entire political class. We will never accept this. We will never give in to any threat or form of intimidation,” said Bazoum Mohamed, vice president of the opposition Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (PNDS). Tandja defied international criticism and domestic protests to hold and win an Aug. 4 referendum allowing him to extend his mandate for a further three years, remove existing limits on his term in office, and boost his presidential powers. Tandja dissolved parliament in the run-up to the referendum and has also dissolved the country’s top court after it opposed his power extension plans. PNDS leader Mahamadou Issoufou was charged on Monday, making him one of the highest profile targets in the probe into 18 billion CFA francs ($40 million) of allegedly lost funds. Pan-African rights group RADDHO raised concerns about what it called the “political liquidation” of Tandja’s opponents ahead of next month’s election to the new parliament. “Ahead of these parliamentary elections, everything points to opposition politicians paying the heaviest price for their hostility and resistance to (Tandja staying in power) — their ability to stand in the vote,” RADDHO said. “This will have dire consequences on democracy in Niger and West Africa,” the group added. ENDANGERING STABILITY Tandja’s government strongly denies that the investigation is politically motivated. “Everything that is being done is being carried out within the legal framework,” Justice Minister Garba Lompo said this week. There were a series of protests before and after the Aug. 4 vote, with several opponents and rights defenders arrested. While calls for widescale protests have so far flopped, there is growing disquiet at Tandja’s actions. “The president is deliberately seeking to create conflict and he is endangering the peace and stability of the country,” said a statement issued jointly on Sunday by opposition lawmakers and several dozen former Tandja allies. Tandja says he must stay in power to oversee large infrastructure projects, which include a 1.2 billion euro uranium mine being built by Areva <CEPFi.PA>, a Chinese-funded oil refinery and an Arab backed hydro-electric project. Areva’s Imouraren mine will be Africa’s biggest when it opens in 2012, with an output forecast at 5,000 tonnes a year. The United Nations, donor nations and regional bodies have all expressed anger at the referendum and threatened action. But while Niger is one of the world’s poorest countries and this month appealed for foreign help to battle floods that have left thousands without shelter, analysts say Tandja’s ability to tap his country’s huge resources undermine these threats. West African regional body ECOWAS has called for a summit on the political row in Niger but the meeting has been postponed. ($1=447.5 Cfa Franc) (Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Dominic Evans)
spotted by RS

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