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Niger's main opposition leader returns to jail with eye on presidential bid: lawyer

FILE PHOTO: A man gets a haircut and a shave in front of a campaign poster of incarcerated opposition candidate Hama Amadou in Niamey, Niger, February 15, 2016. Niger holds presidential and legislative elections on Sunday. REUTERS/Joe Penney/

NIAMEY (Reuters) - Niger’s main opposition leader Hama Amadou is back behind bars after returning home from three years exile in France with the intention of completing his sentence before running for president, his lawyer said.

Amadou’s return could reignite tensions between the government and the opposition ahead of the presidential election in late 2020, which will select a successor to President Mahamadou Issoufou.

Issoufou was elected in 2011 and won a second term by a landslide in 2016. Amadou, his main challenger, was held in jail for several months before the vote on charges of baby trafficking, accusations that he dismissed as politically motivated.

Amadou was released from jail in 2016 to fly to France for medical treatment. He returned to Niger last week and has since turned himself in at Fillingue prison, 200 km north-west of the capital Niamey, his lawyer Boubacar Mossi said.

“Amadou is ready to run in the presidential election if he finishes serving his sentence,” Mossi told Reuters.

It is not clear if he will be allowed to run as a candidate for his party, the Nigerien Democratic Movement. Under Niger law, any person sentenced to at least one year in prison is not eligible to be a presidential candidate. Amadou has so far served four months of his one-year sentence.

There was no immediate comment from the authorities. Issoufou has positioned himself as an ally of Western nations in the fight against Islamist insurgents in the arid Sahel region. Critics, however, say he has become increasingly authoritarian and clamped down on dissent.

Reporting by Boureima Balima; Writing by Juliette Jabkhiro; Editing by Alessandra Prentice and Grant McCool