Malagasy political opponent jailed for five years

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ANTANANARIVO, Oct 8 (Reuters) A key political opponent of Malagasy President Marc Ravalomanana was sentenced to jail for five years today for the theft of three official cars in 2003, his lawyer said.

An outspoken critic of the president who ran on an opposition ticket in December's presidential poll, Pety Rakotoniaina was arrested in July after being on the run for eight months.

He had expressed his support for a coup attempt last November on the enormous Indian Ocean island.

''We're not happy with the verdict, because there is no proof to condemn Pety Rakotoniaina,'' Lalao Adolphe, his lawyer, told Reuters. ''We will appeal the decision.'' Rakotoniaina had helped Ravalomanana come to power in 2002, but turned against him after he was fired as head of a southern province, Fianarantsoa, in 2003.

The reasons for the sacking were not made public, but Ravalomanana has been known to fire other senior officials for non-performance.

A self-made businessman who won a second term in December's election, Ravalomanana is widely respected for his energy and proven business ability. But analysts say he has shown authoritarian instincts.

Another political opponent and former presidential candidate, Roland Ratsiraka, was released on Saturday after serving five months of an 18-month sentence.

The major of eastern town Toamasina and nephew of former President Didier Ratsiraka, he had been detained in April on corruption-related charges.

With an incipient mining boom and GDP growth expected to be 6.5 percent this year, Madagascar is the world's largest producer of vanilla and has a population of nearly 20 million.

Reuters SI RS2156

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