Benin business tycoon Sebastien Ajavon denied justice
BY LOU SIFA
The verdict dropped like an asteroid from Benin’s skies: a twenty-year jail sentence and $8,600-fine are what the newly-established Court for the Repression of Economic and Terrorism Crimes, CRIET, hit Sebastien Ajavon with after a one-day of trial that really was not a trial, since Ajavon’s lawyers were not allowed to defend their client or even access the documents pertaining to the case. An international arrest warrant was also issued for Ajavon who went in exile to France several weeks ago, denouncing a corrupt procedure.
The matter dates back to late October 2016 when Sebastien Ajavon, a former presidential candidate and reportedly the second wealthiest man in Benin after the current president, Patrice Talon, was arrested following the discovery of 18 kilos of allegedly “pure cocaine” in a container from Brazil destined to one of his companies, Comon Sa. Ajavon denied the accusation of drug trafficking, stating that the original locks on the container were tampered with, and, in sum, the cocaine was planted in the container to hurt his image and his business. He later added that his increasing popularity did not sit well with his one-time ally and now president, Patrice Talon.
The ensuing high-profile trial, with massive crowds of the businessman’s supporters gathered near the courthouse and other parts of town in protest, seemed to prove Ajavon’s claim of innocence, as the case was dismissed on 6 November 2016 “due to lack of proofs.” The same goes with three other defendants in the case.
A crucial point in the case: Ajavon’s lawyers are adamant that the court, back in November 2016, issued formal “attestations of non-appeal” for the case, which meant the government could not reopen the case. Then, the Talon’s government in August of this year created the CRIET that resurrected the case and summoned Ajavon and his co-defendants to appear in court again on 4 October 2018.
The businessman’s lawyers cried foul, on the ground that resurrecting the case violates the law. Ajavon’s legal team demanded to see the court documents pertaining to the appeal, but the leader of the team, renowned French attorney Me Éric Dupond-Moretti, stated in a newsconference Thursday following the court proceeding, that his team was denied access to the documents. For his part, on the ground of “the grave irregularities surrounding the procedure, and the accusation itself being absurd and a lie,” chose to not appear in person, but rather let his legal team represent him.
But CRIET’s judge Edouard Gangni who presided over the trial required that the high-profile defendant be present, or his lawyers, who were not allowed to speak in defense of their client during the previous, one-day trial on October 4, would be silenced. Indeed, they were not allowed to plead in defense of their client. Another procedure denounced by Me Éric Dupond-Moretti who pointed out during his newsconference that the Benin’s law allowed a client not to show up in person and be defended by his/her lawyer. Faced with the denial to defend their client, Ajavon’s legal team walked out of the courtroom.
The defense team’s claims were backed by the Order of Benin Lawyers during the trial, but to no avail, leading to the harsh, controversial sentence.
Marc Bensimhon, a member of the ten-man defense team, stated, horrified:
“It’s a sham, a travesty of justice. I haven’t seen that in my 34-year experience. It’s unacceptable!”