One of President Patrice Talon’s main opponents on Saturday convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison by a court in Benin for financing terrorism, in the early hours of Saturday morning.
Reckya Madougou lawyers denounced the sentence as a political hit job, saying it is part of efforts to stifle democracy.
Once praised as a multi-party democracy, Benin has taken a more autocratic turn under the presidency of Patrice Talon since 2016, rights groups say.
The conviction of Madougou, a former justice minister, comes days after another of president Talon’s leading opponents, Joel Aivo, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for plotting against the state and laundering money.
Madougou was arrested in March and accused of financing an operation to assassinate political figures to prevent the presidential election the following month from going ahead. Her candidacy had earlier been rejected by the electoral commission.
Talon won a second term with 86% of the vote in a poll boycotted by much of the opposition and marred by violent protests.
She was found guilty in a trial that lasted less than a day in which no evidence was presented, according to her legal team.
The verdict was announced at around 6 a.m. (0500 GMT) following a trial that included no witnesses, her lawyers said in a statement.
“Her crime was to have represented a democratic alternative to the regime of Patrice Talon,” said lawyer Antoine Vey.
Shortly before the verdict was read out Madougou told the court according to a post on her Facebook page, “I have never been and I will never be a terrorist.”
She added that if the guilty verdict helped people reflect on what was happening in the country then “I would not have suffered in vain”.
Several opponents have been arrested and electoral reforms signed by Talon in 2018 disqualified all opposition parties from running for parliament the following year.
Other political rivals have fled the country and even a judge, who had been part of the court that convicted Madougou, went into exile citing intolerable pressure from the government.
In its report on Benin last year, rights group Amnesty International said that “rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly [had been] unduly restricted”, adding that people had been unjustly prosecuted and police were accused of using excessive force.
The multi-millionaire cotton magnate has denied targeting political opponents or violating human rights.