Reporters Without Borders and Osange Silou-Kieffer, the wife of missing journalist Guy-André Kieffer, issued a joint statement today voicing optimism about a breakthrough in the French investigation into Kieffer’s April 2004 disappearance in Abidjan. Kieffer had French and Canadian dual citizenship.
The decisive development is the arrest in France of Jean-Tony Oulaï, an Ivorian army captain who claims to have belonged to the Ivorian special services. Oulaï has contradicted himself many times in his statements and evidence suggests he could have been the head of a commando that kidnapped and eliminated Kieffer.
At the same time, the two judges in charge of the French investigation, Patrick Ramaël and Emmanuelle Ducos, have announced their intention to travel to Côte d’Ivoire on 16 February for a one-week visit under the fifth formal request for assistance to be addressed to the Ivorian judicial authorities since the investigation began.
“The investigation is clearly progressing,” the joint statement said. “Oulaï’s interrogation will be to take place in a calm environment, far from the pressure that is put on the witnesses who are still in Côte d’Ivoire. If the work of judges Ramaël and Ducos is not obstructed again, we have a good chance of finding out the truth soon.”
The statement added: “For this reason, we call on the Ivorian government to agree to Michel Legré’s transfer to France as soon as possible.” Legré is a key witness whose transfer has been awaiting Ivorian approval for more than a year.
Two days after Oulaï’s arrest outside Paris on 11 January, French judicial authorities announced that he is to be formally investigated on suspicion of kidnapping and illegally detaining Kieffer. His lawyer appealed against a provisional custody order, but a Paris appeal court ruled on 26 January that Oulaï should remain in Paris’s La Santé prison.
When two of his bodyguards accused Oulaï in May 2004 of supervising Kieffer’s abduction, he responded by claiming he was not in Abidjan that day. It was later established from his mobile phone records that he was indeed in Abidjan. He finally acknowledged this under interrogation three weeks ago, claiming that the police had “badly summarized” his initial statements. But he continued to deny participating in the abduction. The two bodyguards have meanwhile retracted, claiming their initial statements were just “a joke.”
This year’s Caen Memorial competition for young lawyers has meanwhile been won by Benoît Kossi Afangbedji of Togo for an essay about Kieffer’s disappearance as a violation of Ivorian press freedom and free speech. The panel that chose the winner, headed by singer Barbara Hendricks, has declared that Kieffer’s abduction will be one of three cases to receive a follow-up by the Caen Memorial. Afangbedji has asked to join the Kieffer defence collective, bringing the number of lawyers on the case to 11.
A freelance journalist based in Abidjan, Kieffer was last seen at around 1 p.m. on 16 April 2004 in a shopping centre in the city. He specialised in commodities and business, working for the French business daily La Tribune from 1984 to early 2002, when he moved to Côte d’Ivoire’s business capital and began freelancing for La Lettre du Continent and several Ivorian newspapers.
Legré, who is the brother-in-law of President Laurent Gbagbo’s wife, was the last person to see Kieffer before he went missing. Judge Ramaël opened an investigation against him on 21 October 2004 on suspicion of “abducting and holding” Kieffer. On 13 December 2004, he requested Legré’s temporary transfer to France for questioning, but the Ivorian authorities never approved the request. Legré was held in an Abidjan detention centre for a year and half before being granted a provisional release in October 2005.