Guinea protest leaders sentenced to jail for organizing against president

CONAKRY (Reuters) - Twelve opposition and civil society leaders in Guinea were convicted and sentenced to prison on Tuesday for organizing protests against a possible change to the constitution that could let President Alpha Conde seek a third term.

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Abdourahmane Sanoh, a former government minister and an organizer of the demonstrations last week, which resulted in at least nine deaths, received a one-year jail term for inciting civil disobedience, the judge in the case said.

Eleven other members of the National Front for the Defence of the Constitution (FNDC), a coalition of politicians and activists opposed to a constitutional change, received jail sentences of varying lengths.

Both the defense and the prosecution, which had been seeking five-year sentences, said they planned to appeal. The defendants were arrested in the days leading up to the protests.

“Everything has been done to silence our clients for a long time because it has been decided they will be obstacles to (Conde’s) plan to seek a third term,” Mohamed Traore, one of the lawyers, told reporters after the verdict was read.

The 81-year-old Conde, whose second and final five-year term expires next year, has refused to rule out running again and asked his government last month to look into drafting a new constitution.

His opponents fear that could be used as a reset button on his presidency, allowing him to run again like other African leaders who have amended or changed constitutions in recent years to stay in power.

During last week’s protests in the capital Conakry and several opposition strongholds in the north, police opened fire on demonstrators as they ransacked military posts and blocked roads with burning tires.

Conde’s first election victory in 2010 raised hopes for democratic progress in Guinea after two years of military rule and nearly a quarter of a century under authoritarian President Lansana Conte, who died in 2008.

But his critics accuse him of cracking down on dissent and violently repressing protests - charges he denies.

Reporting by Saliou Samb; Writing by Anna Pujol-Mazzini; Editing by Alex Richardson and Sandra Maler