Former president sentenced to five years in prison

The authorities in Madagascar remained tight-lipped on Wednesday over whether the government would seek to extradite Didier Ratsiraka from France after a court had sentenced the former president to five years in prison for his role in last year's political crisis.

Ratsiraka, who fled the country at the height of the political upheaval, did not appear in court at Monday's hearing.

"At the moment we are not in a position to state if we are going to request Ratsiraka's extradition or not, but some people would like to see him return, only so that he can answer all of the charges levelled at him. This sentence shows people that the government is committed to justice, and that justice applies to everyone, irrespective of their position," presidential spokesman, Raymond Ramandimbilahatra, told IRIN.

He confirmed that in August President Marc Ravalomanana turned down a request from the former ruler to return to the country.

The five-year sentence was handed down as a result of Ratsiraka's attempt to get five of the country's six provinces to secede during the 2002 political troubles.

Two of Ratsiraka's former provincial governors were also sentenced to five years in prison at Monday's hearing, while three other governors will have to serve three years each for their support of the attempted secession.

The Indian Ocean island was thrown into turmoil for six months in 2002 when Ravalomanana, the popular mayor of the capital, Antananarivo, accused the then incumbent president Ratsiraka of rigging the presidential elections in December 2001.

The rivalry between Ratsiraka and Ravalomanana split the island of 15 million people and tarnished its image as a investor-friendly country. Almost 70 people were killed and hundreds of thousands lost their jobs as a result of the dispute between the leaders.

More than a year later the island country is still trying to come to terms with the effects of the political crisis. A recurring issue is reconciliation between ex-Ratsiraka supporters and Ravalomanana's government.

The country's parliament is currently debating a recently tabled amnesty bill, which, if passed, could set free the pro-Ratsiraka officials detained in connection with the 2002 political crisis.

According to local newspaper L'Express, the ruling party has argued that a general amnesty should be granted only to those sentenced to less than 30 months' imprisonment. But AREMA, Ratsiraka's former party, is seeking amnesty for all those sentenced for up to five years.

"Reconciliation is such a broad term, and it is questionable if it should be applied to Madagascar. After all, the worst that happened was a few isolated scenes of confrontation between the two opposing sides. Although people did lose their lives, the country didn't experience a civil war. The focus now is on moving forward, towards the development of the country," Ramandimbilahatra noted.