French ex-soldiers found guilty over Mahe killing

French peacekeepers in a mock exercise in Abidjan, Ivory Coast (19 November 2012) French troops are now helping to rebuild the Ivorian army

Three French ex-soldiers have been given suspended sentences for their role in the murder of Ivorian Firmin Mahe, while a fourth man was acquitted.

Mr Mahe, a suspected gang leader, was killed in the back of a military vehicle in Ivory Coast in 2005.

The former peacekeepers admitted to being involved in his murder but said they acted under orders.

France sent a 4,000-strong force to its former colony after it descended into a civil war in 2002.

Mr Mahe, whom the French accused of being a murderer and a rapist, was arrested near the western town of Bangolo in May 2005.

He was then suffocated with a plastic bag in the back of a military vehicle.

Col Eric Burgaud has been handed a suspended five-year jail sentence for ordering the murder, AFP news agency reports.

The court also gave suspended prison sentences to Sgt-Maj Guy Rauge and Corp Johannes Schnier, both found guilty of suffocating Mr Mahe to death with a plastic bag.

The vehicle's driver, Corp Lianrifou Ben Youssouf, has been acquitted.

'Exceptional situation'

Although the murder case "gravely violated the Republic's values", judges said they also had to take into account the mitigating circumstances of the "exceptional situation" faced by ex-peacekeepers in Ivory Coast at the time.

Cries of protest erupted in the Paris courtroom when the verdict was read out, with people shouting "shame on France", AFP reports.

Mr Mahe's family has always insisted that he was innocent, and has been campaigning for the former peacekeepers to stand trial for his murder.

On Thursday, prosecutors called for prison terms of between two and five years for the accused.

Col Eric Burgaud Col Burgaud said he was following orders

Chief prosecutor Annie Grenier said the ex-soldiers had been involved in a "cold-blooded murder" in a country where they were supposed to help protect civilians.

She said even if they acted on orders, it was their "duty to refuse to carry out an illegal order".

Col Burgaud said the force commander at the time, Gen Henri Poncet, had ordered the killing with the phrase: "Drive slowly, you understand me?"

He understood this to mean that it would be "best if Mahe arrived dead" and he relayed the instruction to his co-accused, Col Burgaud said.

Gen Poncet, who was sacked following Mr Mahe's death, was not on trial, and denies ordering Col Burgaud to carry out the killing.

French peacekeepers were first deployed to Ivory Coast when it split between a rebel-held north and a government-held south in 2002.

The conflict ended last year when French and United Nations forces helped arrest then-President Laurent Gbagbo after he refused to accept defeat in elections.

This allowed the winner of the elections, Alassane Ouattara, to take power.

French troops are now playing a key role in training the new Ivorian army.

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