Benin has freed 30 opposition supporters arrested during the 2021 election that handed President Patrice Talon a second term, a senior judicial source said on Wednesday.
The decision came during a visit by French President Emmanuel Macron who met with Talon in the country’s commercial capital Cotonou.
The West African state was long praised for its vibrant multi-party democracy, but critics say freedoms have eroded under Talon, a 64-year-old cotton magnate first elected in 2016.
The special court for economic and terrorism crimes, known as Criet, freed 30 people who were arrested during the election, placing them under temporary judicial supervision, the source said.
Among those freed were leaders and youth activists of the opposition Democrats party, the party confirmed to AFP.
The announcement came hours after Talon dismissed criticism his government was holding political prisoners after the jailing last year of two top opposition leaders.
The small West African state sitting between Nigeria and Togo had been known for its thriving multi-party democracy, but critics say Talon has led the country down an authoritarian path.
Talon had been speaking during a one-day visit by Macron to Cotonou after travelling to Cameroon.
“In Benin, there are no political detainees, no one is detained in Benin for their political opinion,” Talon said, answering questions from journalists with Macron at his side.
“But people are detained for having acted, for having committed offenses and crimes in the political field, that is true.”
Macron did not talk about the political situation in Benin during his speech.
Talon said it was possible that an amnesty or pardon may be given to detained opposition figures, when asked about releasing the two leaders.
“We have to be able to adjust the political situation so that it gives a good image, favourable to economic development,” Talon said.
“Our image is a little tarnished by the political situation that Benin has experienced lately. I am not ashamed of that.”
Benin opposition leader Reckya Madougou was sentenced in December to 20 years in prison for terrorism by a special court in the capital Porto-Novo after a brief trial that her attorneys condemned as a “political attack”.
Madougou was one of several Benin opposition leaders banned from running in last year’s election in April in which Talon won a second term with 86 percent of the vote.
A former justice minister, she was arrested in Cotonou in March — just weeks before the election — accused of financing an operation to assassinate political figures to prevent the vote and trying to “destabilise” the country.
Another opposition leader Joel Aivo, a professor who had been held for eight months, was also found guilty last year of plotting against the state and money laundering.
Aivo was also barred from running in the election.
Both were tried by the special court dealing with terrorism and economic crimes. Critics say the court, created by Talon’s government in 2016, has been used crack down on his opponents.