Ghana frees ally of ex-Ivory Coast leader, drops murder charge

ACCRA Wed Oct 24, 2012 12:19pm EDT

ACCRA (Reuters) - A court in Ghana released a top ally of former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo on Wednesday after dismissing charges brought by Ivorian authorities that he murdered two men during last year's post-election civil war.

Allegations that pro-Gbagbo exiles in Ghana have masterminded a rash of armed raids on security and infrastructure targets in Ivory Coast in recent months have strained relations between the two West African neighbors.

Justin Kone Katinan, Gbagbo's former budget minister, was arrested in August on an international warrant accusing him of financial crimes.

After being released on bail, he was re-arrested and charged with two killings allegedly committed at the height of the conflict, which erupted after Gbagbo refused to accept the victory of rival Alassane Ouattara in a poll in late 2010.

"Unless you can tell me a reason how legally you are able to initiate proceedings against Mr Katinan, I have no option but to release him...You are free," Judge Ali Baba Bature told a court in Ghana's capital Accra, dismissing the murder charges.

Katinan still faces possible extradition to Ivory Coast on the earlier warrant which accuses him of organizing raids on 10 Ivorian banks during the election crisis and stealing a total of around 300 billion CFA francs ($592.91 million).

His extradition hearing is scheduled to continue on November 7.

"The outcome doesn't surprise us. We believe they were trumped up charges to send Mr Katinan into the hands of the powers that be in his country," Katinan's lawyer Patrick Sogbodjor told Reuters, referring to the murder case.

Ivory Coast's government spokesman said it "respected" the decision of the Ghanaian court.

"We think that the Ghanaian justice system is sovereign, therefore we do not have any particular comment to make," Bruno Kone told Reuters.

While Gbagbo is currently awaiting trial in The Hague accused of crimes against humanity, many of his top political and military allies are living in exile, having fled Ivory Coast at the end of the war.

Several leading members of the regime, including Katinan, have established a base in Ghana from which they are working to destabilize the new government, according to a report by a United Nations expert panel released this month.

The U.N. investigators, who are charged with monitoring an arms embargo in Ivory Coast, say the pro-Gbagbo exiles are behind a series of armed raids that began in August.

The attacks led Ouattara, now president, to order the closure last month of Ivory Coast's border with Ghana, a measure that remained in place for more than two weeks disrupting trade along one of West Africa's principal transport corridors. ($1 = 505.9830 CFA francs)

(Additional reporting and writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Michael Roddy)