Ghana court rejects request to extradite Ivorian fugitive

ACCRA Fri Aug 30, 2013 11:35am EDT

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ACCRA (Reuters) - A court in Ghana on Friday rejected a request to extradite a senior ally of former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo, saying the warrant issued by Ivorian authorities was politically motivated.

Justin Kone Katinan, Gbagbo's former budget minister, was arrested in August last year in Accra on an international warrant accusing him of masterminding the looting of banks in the Ivorian capital.

Ivory Coast's decision to pursue Gbagbo's supporters for various crimes during the violent political standoff after the disputed 2010 election, has angered the opposition and made reconciliation efforts with the Gbagbo camp difficult.

Gbagbo is awaiting trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague on charges of crimes against humanity committed during a brief 2011 civil war.

After several months of hearings, the court dismissed the robbery charges on Friday saying evidence provided by authorities was not credible.

"Overall, I hold the view that the alleged crimes cannot be devoid of political persecution and I therefore discharge and acquit the accused," Magistrate Aboagye Tanoh said.

The Ivorian government was not immediately available to comment and Ghanaian prosecutors who led the case for Ivory Coast, said they were yet to decide whether to appeal against the decision.

Relations between the two top cocoa producing neighbors soured after several senior Gbagbo supporters sought refuge in Ghana after the Ivorian civil war ended in 2011.

Ivory Coast said Ghana was not doing enough to control pro-Gbagbo allies who were using the country as a base to regroup and carry out plots to destabilize President Alassane Ouattara's new government, a charge Ghana denied.

In February, one of Gbagbo's most vocal allies and leader of his youth movement Charles Ble Goude, was arrested and handed over to Ivory Coast.

However, Friday's court decision is the second legal victory for Katinan, who has sought political refuge in Ghana.

Last October, another court in Accra dismissed murder charges brought by Ivorian authorities against Katinan for the killing of two men during the war in 2011.

Katinan's lawyer said the ruling reinforced their view that Katinan was being persecuted for political reasons.

"We are happy for him now because this ruling would enable him enjoy his liberties as an international refugee, rather than a wanted criminal," lead lawyer Patrick Sogbodjo told Reuters.

(Reporting by Kwasi Kpodo; Editing by Alison Williams)

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