A TOP Benin judge on Monday said he had quit and fled the West African country, condemning political pressure that he alleged included a demand to detain an opposition figure in the run-up to presidential elections.
His denunciation comes as critics accuse President Patrice Talon (pictured) of cracking down on opponents, including rivals who had sought to contest Sunday’s ballot.
Essowe Batamoussi said he had stepped down as a justice with the Economic Crime and Terrorism Court (CRIET), which oversaw a probe into opposition candidate Reckya Madougou, who was arrested last month.
‘The judge that I am is not independent,’ Batamoussi told France’s RFI radio early on Monday in an interview from an undisclosed location.
‘All the decisions that we have had to take have been under pressure, including the one which put Reckya Madougou in detention.’
Madougou, whose candidacy for the election was rejected, was arrested last month and accused of plotting acts of terrorism to disrupt the elections.
Justice Minister Severin Quenum said in a statement that Batamoussi’s claims were ‘political manipulation’.
‘Large sums of money from neighbouring countries are offered here and there to win various civilian and military figures to the cause of destabilising the state,’ he added, going so far as to claim that ‘calls have been made for a coup d’etat.’
The CRIET is a special court created by Talon that critics say has become a tool the government uses to suppress opponents with investigations.
One of Batamoussi’s colleagues there described him to AFP as a ‘rigorous and very demanding’ judge.
Sunday’s presidential election promises few surprises, with Talon facing two little-known opposition candidates.
Benin has long been seen as a vibrant multi-party democracy, but Talon’s critics say the country has veered into authoritarianism under his rule.
Opponents say the vote is already rigged to favour Talon, a cotton magnate first elected in 2016.
Seventeen other candidates, including Madougou, had their candidacies rejected by the electoral commission for failing to garner the required signatures of support from 16 mayors or MPs.
That requirement was introduced by Talon in a contested electoral reform.
Sebastien Ajavon, an opponent who came third in the previous election and was already sentenced by CRIET in 2018 to 20 years in prison for drug trafficking, was again sentenced in early March in absentia to a second sentence for forgery.
He currently lives in exile, like most of Benin’s key opposition leaders.
Last month, leading opposition figure Bio Dramane Tidjani and a party associate were also charged by the CRIET with criminal association and terrorism.