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Ex-Congo Republic army chief, opposition figure jailed for 20 years

BRAZZAVILLE (Reuters) - A court in Congo Republic sentenced ex-army chief and opposition presidential candidate Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko to 20 years in prison on Friday on charges of violating state security and illegal possession of weapons.

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Mokoko, a power broker in the former French colony’s 1990s civil war, finished third to long-serving President Denis Sassou Nguesso in a March 2016 election that was criticized by opposition parties and foreign powers for irregularities.

He was arrested in June 2016.

Prosecutors accused of Mokoko and several co-defendants of amassing arms as far back as 2005 in the aim of overthrowing Sassou Nguesso’s government. The co-accused received the same prison sentence.

They now have three days to appeal the verdict.

Mokoko declined to speak in his own defense during the trial, which opened on Monday, claiming that having been awarded the honor of Commander of the Congolese Order of Merit he benefited from immunity from prosecution.

The state prosecutor called Mokoko’s silence an admission of guilt.

“Justice wasn’t rendered,” defense lawyer Philippe Esseau said following the verdict. “We consider that Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko cannot be prosecuted due to his immunity. His detention in prison is arbitrary. This decision has no value.”

Mokoko’s supporters said his prosecution was an attempt by Sassou Nguesso, who has ruled the oil-rich central African nation for all but five of the past 38 years, to use the courts to stifle dissent.

The president held a referendum in 2015 that changed the constitution, allowing him to seek a third term in office, leading to protests in which at least 18 people were killed by security forces.

(Corrects arrest date from “last June” to June 2016 in paragraph 3.)

Reporting by Roch Bouka; Writing by Joe Bavier