Prosecutors in the Central African Republic on Wednesday accused a French national of espionage and conspiracy, in a case that has sparked French charges that its former colony is siding with a Kremlin disinformation campaign.
Juan Remy Quignolot, who was arrested in the capital Bangui on May 10, “has been placed in custody” pending an inquiry by an investigating magistrate, public prosecutor Eric Didier Tambo told AFP.
“The accusations are of espionage, illegal possession of military and hunting weapons, criminal association, harming domestic state security and conspiracy,” said Tambo.
He made no reference to any country or organisation for whom Quignolot allegedly worked, but said any trial would take place within six months.
“In cases of harming domestic security, you’re talking about lifetime forced labour,” he said, referring to the potential punishment.
The announcement came two days after France froze cooperation with its former colony over what it described as an anti-French “disinformation” campaign, pointing the finger at Russia.
At the time of his arrest, the CAR accused Quignolot of possessing a “huge quantity of combat weapons” and as passing himself off as a journalist.
Aid workers said Quignolot had worked occasionally as a security guard for several organisations.
“He was briefly in the French army when he was a young man,” a diplomat told AFP.
– French anger –
Photos circulating on social media on the day of Quignolot’s arrest showed him with his hands bound behind his back, sitting on some steps before an arsenal of weapons, ammunition and military clothing.
Two days later, France lashed the arrest and the pictures as “clear manipulation.”
It said “disinformation networks” were being used, “promoting well-identified interests who are used to targeting France’s presence and actions” in the CAR.
Quignolot’s arrest was notably conveyed on Twitter by Valery Zakharov, a Russian who is a close advisor to CAR President Faustin Archange Touadera.
On Monday, France suspended budgetary aid and military cooperation with the CAR.
“The CAR authorities have several times made commitments which they haven’t upheld, both politically with regard to the opposition and in its behaviour towards France, which is being targeted by a massive disinformation campaign,” the French foreign ministry said.
“The Russians are involved, but the CAR is an accomplice at best.”
France has long played a key role in the CAR since the impoverished landlocked country gained independence in 1960.
It intervened militarily to help still a bloody conflict that erupted along sectarian lines after the then president, Francois Bozize, was toppled by predominantly Muslim rebels in 2013.
The mission, Operation Sangaris, ended in 2016 following elections.
– Russian role –
But in past months, tensions have grown over the Russian presence in the chronically unstable country.
In 2018, Russia sent weapons and a large contingent of “instructors” to train the CAR’s beleaguered armed forces.
It has also stepped up investment in the CAR’s mining sector. The country’s riches include gold, diamonds, copper and uranium.
Last December, Moscow, as well as Rwanda, sent hundreds of military personnel to help shore up Touadera as a coalition of armed groups mounted an attempted coup ahead of presidential elections.
The reinforcements have helped Touadera to regain control over much of the country, which had previously been mostly in the hands of militias.
On May 30, in an interview with France’s Journal du Dimanche newspaper, French President Emmanuel Macron said “anti-French talk has provided legitimacy to predatory Russian mercenaries at the apex of the state, with a President Touadera who today is a hostage of the Wagner group.”
The Wagner group is the name given to Russian paramilitaries that operate under the orders of the Kremlin.
Last December, Facebook removed two networks of fake accounts based in Russia and one linked to the French military which it said were being used for interference campaigns in Africa, including in CAR.