Military court sentences French journalist’s killer to 17 years in prison

New York, January 23, 2004—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) welcomes the verdict delivered yesterday by a military court in Ivory Coast’s commercial capital, Abidjan, sentencing an Ivoirian police officer to 17 years in prison for the October 2003 murder of Radio France Internationale (RFI) correspondent Jean Hélène.

The court found Sgt. Théodore Séry Dago guilty of voluntary homicide, but with “mitigating circumstances.” There was no immediate clarification of what these might be.

The police officer was also fined 500,000 CFA francs ($960), stripped of his rank in the national police, and barred from voting or leaving his home province for 10 years, according to press reports. The five-member tribunal ordered the Ivoirian State to pay 137 million CFA francs ($263,850) in damages to the heirs of Jean Hélène, whose birth name was Christian Baldensperger.

Hélène’s family, RFI and French press freedom group Reporters without Borders (RSF) were civil parties in the case. RSF said it was satisfied with the verdict and hoped that the trial had clarified responsibilities in the killing.

Although the motive for the murder is still not clear, RFI lawyer Olivier Desandre accused Ivory Coast media of whipping up anti-French feelings in the context of the civil war, the BBC reported.

Hélène was shot in the head outside the national police headquarters in central Abidjan on October 21, 2003, while he was waiting to interview detained opposition activists who were being released. Sgt. Séry Dago pleaded not guilty to the murder. His lawyers said they planned to appeal.

“We welcome this rare case of a journalist’s murderer being brought to justice,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper, “and hope this will send a message that attacks on journalists will not be tolerated. We call for the full findings of the court to be made public.”