November 8, 2010 / 5:17 PM / 8 years ago

W.African court tells Niger junta to free ex-leader

ABUJA (Reuters) - The court of justice of the West African regional body ECOWAS ordered Niger’s military rulers on Monday to release Mamadou Tandja, a former president the soldiers ousted in a coup earlier this year.

“Apparently (Tandja’s) human rights have been violated. This court hereby rules that he should be released,” ECOWAS Justice Awa Nana Daboya said at a hearing in Abuja, Nigeria.

The court gave no further details. A Niger junta spokesman in the capital said he could not comment because authorities had yet to be formally notified of the ruling.

Tandja has been held under house arrest since he was toppled in February by soldiers who have since promised to hold elections and return power to civilians in the uranium-exporting nation by April 2011.

“This is satisfying, deeply satisfying for us,” Souley Oumarou, the Tandja family’s lawyer, told Reuters by telephone on Monday. “The soldiers have no choice but to abide by the court’s decision, which cannot be appealed against.”

News of the court’s decision emerged a week after voters in Niger endorsed a new constitution that is tailored to pave the return to civilian rule.

However, General Salou Djibo’s junta is also grappling with internal divisions and last month arrested a number of officers after it said it had foiled a coup attempt.

Tandja’s removal was largely welcomed in Niger since he had grown increasingly unpopular after scrapping the previous constitution to stay in power after his second term ended.

After the expected initial public condemnations, donors and regional bodies like ECOWAS swiftly got behind Djibo’s junta and the civilian transitional government set up to guide the former French colony to elections.

Over the weekend, Mahamadou Issoufou — a veteran politician who lost out to Tandja in elections in 1999 and 2004 and is seen by some as favourite in the coming vote — was confirmed as the PNDS party candidate at the weekend.

“The moment has come, the conditions are right ..,” Issoufou told a PNDS meeting at the weekend. “I know that I can count on you to turn these conditions into votes at the ballot box.”

Niger is one of West Africa’s poorest nations and this year struggled with a food crisis that left half its population hungry after failed rains and crops.

But Niger has attracted billions of dollars of investment in uranium mining, mainly from French nuclear giant Areva, while China National Petroleum Corp is developing oil fields in the southeast of the country.

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