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Togo leader's half-brother sentenced for 'coup plot'

By Emile Kouton

LOME (AFP) - Togo's supreme court on Thursday sentenced the president's half-brother to 20 years in prison and 32 others to a range of jail terms over an alleged 2009 coup plot in the West African nation.

A former head of the armed forces, Assani Tidjani, was also given 20 years in prison, while a second half-brother of President Faure Gnassingbe received a 24-month sentence, with one month suspended following the controversial trial.

"There is reason to declare him guilty of the crime of plotting against state security," Supreme Court President Abalo Petchelebia said of Kpatcha Gnassingbe, alleged to be the mastermind of the plot and who is the half-brother of President Faure Gnassingbe.

"The court sentences him to 20 years in prison ..."

The sentences announced in the packed courtroom ranged between 12 months and 20 years. Some of those convicted were expected to be released, however, because of prison time already served since their arrests.

The verdicts and sentencing came after questions had been raised over whether there was in fact a coup plot, with analysts noting a strong rivalry between the president and Kpatcha Gnassingbe.

Some have argued that Kpatcha Gnassingbe, a former defence minister, had been eyeing the presidency in 2010.

But prosecutors said the verdicts and sentencing showed that the plot they had alleged was real.

"It is a decision that at least proves that the plot is not fiction, but reality," said one of the prosecutors, Archange Gabriel Dossou.

One of the defence lawyers, however, said the case had been far from proven.

"The court was not able to show the culpability of the accused throughout the trial -- and they are sentenced to terms of up to 20 years," said Zeus Ajavon.

Kpatcha Gnassingbe and the president are among the numerous sons of Gnassingbe Eyadema, who ruled the country for 38 years with an iron fist until his death in 2005.

All the suspects who had appeared in court -- one remains on the run -- had pleaded their innocence, and Kpatcha Gnassingbe called for "reconciliation" within the family.

"I ask forgiveness from the (other) accused because this is very much a family affair," he said in an address to the judge earlier this week. "... A reconciliation is needed."

Details of the alleged plot remain unclear, though it was claimed at the time that it was to be carried out while the president was away on a trip to China.

At the time of the alleged plot, Kpatcha Gnassingbe's house was raided by elite troops in an operation that led to a bloody gunfight. He was arrested while trying to take refuge at the US embassy.

Faure Gnassingbe was installed in the presidency by the army in 2005 shortly after the announcement of the death of his father, who had been a general. He has since won elections in 2005 and 2010.

Some analysts have said that the only reason the case has moved forward after two years is because of pressure from international donors who wanted to see due process carried out in the judicial system.

The country's poor economic performance has been monitored closely in recent years by the International Monetary Fund and other donors, and progress has been noted, while the president has sought to portray himself as a reformer in some ways.

© 2011 AFP