French soldiers guilty in murder of Ivory Coast man

PARIS Fri Dec 7, 2012 12:53pm EST

PARIS (Reuters) - Three French soldiers were found guilty on Friday of murdering a highway gang leader in Ivory Coast in 2005 in a high-profile case that strained relations between France and its former colony.

The sentences were suspended, meaning the soldiers will not face jail.

A Paris criminal court handed down the suspended sentences ranging from one to five years for the three soldiers accused of killing Firmin Mahe, an Ivory Coast man wanted for murder and rape, in May 2005.

The incident - in which Mahe was suffocated with a plastic bag in an armored vehicle after his arrest - erupted into a diplomatic scandal after it was found the soldiers tried to cover up the crime.

The former commander of the 4,000-strong French peacekeepers in Ivory Coast, Henri Poncet, was suspended over the affair, which hurt relations between France and Ivory Coast, the world's top cocoa producer.

The soldiers, serving alongside United Nations peacekeepers, had been patrolling the buffer zone in Ivory Coast that separated the government-controlled south from the rebel-held north.

That civil war ended last year when the same French force helped arrest former President Laurent Gbagbo, who had refused to step down after the election of Alassane Ouattara as president.

The court gave Colonel Eric Burgaud, who had given the order to kill, a suspended sentence of five years, while his adjunct who had admitted to carrying out the murder, Guy Raugel, received a suspended four-year sentence.

Brigadier Chief Johannes Schnier, who helped in the killing, was handed a suspended sentence of one year. Another soldier who drove the vehicle during the killing was acquitted.

During the trial, the presiding magistrate cited the difficulty of judging such a case, for which there was little or no precedent.

(Reporting By Thierry Leveque; Writing By Alexandria Sage; Editing by Michael Roddy)

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