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French soldiers given suspended sentences for Ivorian's murder

media Colonel Eric Burgaud arrives at the trial AFP/Kenzo Tribouillard

Three French soldiers who smothered a man to death with a plastic bag during a peacekeeping mission in Côte d’Ivoire were given suspended sentences by a French court on Friday.

The verdict was greeted by howls of derision from Ivorians present at the hearing, some shouting "Shame on France!" or “Scandalous!”.

Colonel Eric Burgaud, who ordered the killing of Firmin Mahé in 2005, received a five-year suspended sentence. Adjutant Guy Raugel and Brigadier Johannes Schnier, who tied Mahé's hands and smothered him with a plastic bag, were given suspended sentences of four years and two years respectively.

Brigadier Lianrifou Ben Youssouf, who drove the vehicle in which the murder was committed, was acquitted.

Burgaud said he passed on an order to kill Mahé from, General Henri Poncet, the commander of the peacekeeping force.

Poncet denies giving such an order but the court’s judgement seems to accept that he did, while saying that it was illegal and that the soldiers should have refused to carry it out.

“The court understood the distress of these French soldiers, who were confronted with brutality while following orders,” commented Burgaud’s lawyer, Alexis Gublin. “The court recognised that they accepted to do something illegal, which became legitimate when it was imposed on them. They take responsibility for their actions. Justice has been served today.”

The court said the soldiers' actions had "seriously undermined the values” of the French republic," but said they were operating in an "exceptional situation" which reduced their responsibility.

The soldiers’ mission was to clamp down on gangs of highwaymen that had sprung up during the division of Côte d’Ivoire between two opposing camps and the court found that they had witnessed atrocities that UN forces, who patrolled a so-called "safe zone", were unable to prevent.

The French military said that Mahé was a murderer and rapist who terrorised people in the area.

Poncet, who testified at the trial, has not been prosecuted but has been relieved of his duties and given an official reprimand following a suspected cover-up of the murder.

Throughout the trial, Mahé’s family denied he was a criminal and argued that the soldiers had killed the wrong person.

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