French TV crew may face Niger death penalty: lawyer
( Reuters ) - Authorities in Niger have charged two French journalists with colluding with armed groups in the country's uranium-rich north, which could carry the death penalty if they are convicted, their lawyer said on Saturday.
Thomas Dandois and Pierre Creisson are accused of violating the terms of their media accreditation to film a report about bird flu in the southern city of Maradi, instead traveling to film rebel fighters in the country's Saharan north.
Northern Niger has been under a state of alert since August and foreign reporters are banned as part of efforts to combat rebels who have killed at least 49 government security personnel since they launched their uprising in February.
The Niger Justice Movement (MNJ), led by light-skinned Tuareg nomadic tribesmen, says its members are fighting for more autonomy from the black African-led government in the south and for a greater share of their region's mineral wealth.
The government dismisses them as bandits and smugglers.
Dandois and Creisson were ordered to be held in a prison in Kollo, about 25 km (15 miles) southeast of the capital Niamey, where they were arrested on Monday.
The crime could carry the death penalty, their lawyer, Coulibaly Moussa, told reporters in Niamey, saying: "This is a serious setback for liberty and the rule of law."
Paris-based press freedom watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres this week demanded the release of reporter Dandois and cameraman Creisson, who were employed by Camicas Productions and were in Niger compiling a report for European TV station ARTE.
Niger's government has insisted they should face justice.
"Anyone who infringes our laws and regulations will have to answer for their actions before our courts," Communications Minister Mohamed Ben Omar said on Thursday.
In September the government deported independent French TV producer Francois Begeron after holding him for a month for visiting northern Niger without its authorization.
Two other local journalists, including one working for French state-backed Radio France International, have been detained for weeks on suspicion of aiding the rebels.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International both issued reports this week accusing Niger's army of illegally executing civilians and other abuses, charges Ben Omar dismissed as lies.
The rebellion has increased tensions between Paris and Niamey, which earlier this year accused French state-controlled uranium miner and nuclear reactor maker Areva of paying army deserters who joined the rebellion.
The government also declared the company's top local representative, a French national, persona non grata.
At the same time, Niger has allocated dozens of uranium prospecting licenses to companies from around the world, smashing Areva's decades-old monopoly on an industry which is the country's main source of foreign exchange.