2 Frenchmen Sentenced to Years of Forced Labor in Failed Coup Against Madagascar President

Two French citizens were sentenced to 10 and 20 years of forced labor for plotting to kill Andry Rajoelina, the president of Madagascar.

Paul Rafanoharana and Philippe François pleaded not guilty to charges of endangering state security, criminal association and conspiracy to assassinate the president ahead of the 10-day trial in the capital of Antananarivo.

State prosecutor Arsène Rabe said "emails, arms and money, seized" by authorities in a July raid show that Rafanoharana and François were members of "a criminal organization" operating under a plan titled "Apollo 21" meant to "carry out an attack against President Rajoelina."

According to BBC News, another 20 defendants were also given prison sentences in connection to the plot.

Rafanoharana, who received the 20-year sentence, worked briefly as an adviser to Rajoelina in 2011. During the trial, he said he imagined "neutralizing" Rajoelina's entourage, but did not plot to kill the president.

"I consider that it is not a crime to have thought of neutralizing the mafia which harms the country and to have wanted to help a president who is a prisoner of various influences," he said.

François, who received the 10-year sentence, said he was not involved in the Apollo 21 plan at all.

"I have never been directly or indirectly involved in such a project," he said.

Madagascar, president, Andry Rajoelina
A court in Madagascar convicted two French citizens of having plotted a failed coup against President Andry Rajoelina and sentenced them to 10 years and 20 years, respectively, of forced labor. Above, Rajoelina speaks during the UN Climate Change Conference COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, Tuesday, Nov. 2. Adrian Dennis/Pool via AP, File

The two Frenchmen were arrested in July and accused of the assassination charges along with 18 other defendants.

The two men pleaded not guilty and their defense has denounced the trial and unfair with "numerous procedural flaws."

"We are truly appalled by this verdict," said Arlette Rafanomadio, one of Rafanoharana's lawyers who was reached by telephone.

"We did not expect such a heavy sentence because there is no hard evidence to convict our client," she said. "We are going to appeal and we are studying possible applications to international bodies."

Rafanoharana, a former officer of the French gendarmerie and a graduate of the Saint-Cyr military school, was briefly an adviser to Rajoelina in 2011.

François, also a graduate of Saint-Cyr and a retired colonel of the French army, had worked in Chad before arriving in Madagascar almost two years ago. Francois and Rafanoharana were partners in an investment company, Tsarafirst, which bought and sold gold.

Others sentenced include Rafanoharana's wife who was given a five-year prison term. Former Madagascar Prime Minister Victor Ramahatra was handed a five-year suspended prison sentence.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.