Following international protests, Eric Topona has been set free after four months in custody. But his ordeal is not over as his case now goes to an appeal court. He denies any wrongdoing.
A court in N'jamena sentenced Eric Topona to a three year prison term on Monday (19.08.2013) for defamation. The sentence was suspended and Topona was released after nearly four months in custody. Topona, who was the Secretary General of the Chadian Journalists Association as well as DW's correspondent in the country , was relieved about his release. “It is with immense pleasure that I receive the news of my release, although I was given a three year suspended sentence,” he said. Topona expressed his appreciation for the help he had received while going through his ordeal. “I am grateful to everyone who has supported me, especially Deutsche Welle and my other friends abroad. Without this support, my morale would have sapped and I might not have survived,” he said.
The detention of Topona and other journalists and bloggers in Chad has met with heavy international criticism. The rights group Reporters Without Borders described the arrests as “arbitrary” and "raising great concern for press freedom in Chad." Deutsche Welle and politicians from all of Germany's major political parties urged the Chadian government to ensure that Topona was released. “We have suffered with him and are very very relieved,” said Claus Stäcker, head of Deutsche Welle's African language services. “What he has been through reminds us of the risks our correspondents often take and and how closely their work and our work is being followed in the target markets,” he said.
Chad ranked 121 of 179 countries on the Reporters Without Borders' press freedom index for 2013. President Idriss Deby came to power in a coup more than 20 years ago and since then has ruled the country with a rod of iron. The most recent act of oppression was a wave of arrests of alleged supporters of the opposition in the spring of this year.
Topona was initially summoned as a witness, but then he himself was arrested on suspicion of "endangering the constitutional order," because he had been "distributing subversive documents” on the Internet. He was threatened with life imprisonment.
Topona denied being the author of the blog posts in question. His lawyers described the allegations as “fabricated". The charges were later reduced to “defamation”.
Conditions in prison were appalling and Topona contracted malaria. He suffered a lot. Even visits by diplomats were temporarily denied to him. His father said he was relieved when he saw his son at the hearing on Monday. “He's fine – he's also keeping his morale up,” Celestin Topona told Deutsche Welle. Now he hopes that the lawyers will finish their job and secure an acquittal on appeal. That is exactly the goal that Sobdibe Zoua, a member of Topana's defense team, is working towards. "Topona never admitted the allegations were true and he therefore has to be acquitted," Zoua said after the verdict. The appeals court is to rule in a month's time.