The Supreme Court of Guinea-Bissau has cleared former presidents Joao Bernardo "Nino" Vieira and Kumba Yala to contest next month's presidential election, but has not publicly announced its reasons for overruling the legal obstacles which had threatened to prevent both men from standing.
The six-man tribunal published a list of 14 approved candidates on Tuesday night and rejected the nominations of seven others, including Francisco Fadul, a former prime minister and leader of the United Social Democratic Party (PUSD), the third largest party in parliament.
Guinea-Bissau's lawyers's association and a constitutional expert said they were astounded at the Supreme Court's decision to allow Vieira and Yala to stand in the 19 June election, describing it as a travesty of justice.
"The Guinean judicial system had the opportunity to assert itself, but unfortunately, once again, it has been afraid to speak the truth," said Armando Bango, the head of the local Law Society.
Vieira, a military strongman who ruled the country from 1980 to 1999, was widely viewed as ineligible because he faces court charges that he ordered the assassination of five senior military officers suspected of plotting a coup against him in 1985.
Since his overthrow, Vieira has been living in Portugal, the former colonial ruler of this small West African country. And legal experts had thought that his status as a political exile living overseas would also make him ineligible to stand as a candidate for elected office under Guinea-Bissau law.
Yala was elected president in 2000, only to be overthrown by a bloodless coup in 2003 after he dismissed parliament and failed to hold fresh elections. He was subsequently banned from holding political office for five years under the terms of a transitional charter to guide Guinea-Bissau back to democracy.
The charter was signed by all the country's main political parties, including Yala's own Social Renovation Party (PRS), which subsequently named him as its presidential candidate.
"With this decision by the Supreme Court, the transitional charter has died," said Carlos Vamain, one of Guinea-Bissau's leading experts on constitutional affairs. "Now the judges of the Supreme Court should simply pack their bags and go."
"This was not a juridical decision, but a political one," he added.
Many political analysts reckon that Vieira and Yala will be the front-runners in the election, eclipsing Mallam Bacai Sanha, the official candidate of the ruling African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC), which won parliamentary elections in March last year.
Vieira and Yala are both controversial figures in Guinea-Bissau. Diplomats fear that should either man return to power, it will prove difficult to heal the wounds of Guinea-Bissau's 1998 to 1999 civil war and restore stability to this impoverished country of 1.3 million people.
However, the UN special envoy to Guinea-Bissau, former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano, flew out of the country on Tuesday, hours before the Supreme Court ruling was announced, saying he was "very satisfied" with the way things were going.
"I was very encouraged by the categorical and unambiguous statement by the military high command that the armed forces will remain rigorously neutral in this process and will not lend military support to any of the candidates," Chissano told a press conference shortly before his departure.
Speaking after a week of consultations with all the main political parties and other influential groups in Guinea-Bissau, Chissano said the military chiefs had given him assurances that they would never again be manipulated by politicians as they had been in the past.
They had promised, he said, that in future they would remain subordinate to the civilian authorities.
Many local people remain doubtful about that. An army mutiny in October led to the assassination of General Verissimo Correia Seabra, the chief of staff of the armed forces, and forced the government to appoint a completely new military high command chosen by the mutineers.
No-one has far been charged with the killing of Correia Seabra, who led the coup against Yala two years ago.
The Supreme Court's decision to exclude Fadul from next month's presidential election came as something of a surprise.
As interim prime minister following the civil war, Fadul organised the last presidential election which brought Yala to power. His PUSD party holds 17 of the 100 seats in parliament.
PUSD spokesman Jose Dafe said the Supreme Court had informed the party that Fadul had been excluded on a technicality, because two people indicated as having signed his nomination papers had failed to confirm doing so.
Dafe said he believed the real reason that Fadul had been sidelined was because his father was Lebanese.
The constitution of Guinea-Bissau, like that of Cote d'Ivoire, insists that both parents of a presidential candidate be of Guinean nationality.
A copy of the still confidential Supreme Court ruling made available to IRIN said the judges had voted five to one in favour of overturning the five-year ban on Yala holding political office.
They argued that he resigned as president on 17 September 2003, 11 days before the transitional charter was signed and it should not apply to him retroactively in any way that would damage his interest.
The ruling said the judges were unanimous in approving Vieira's candidature, because he had in practice ended his asylum status in Portugal by returning to Guinea-Bissau for a three-day visit in early April. Despite the murder charges lodged him against in the state prosecutor's office, no trace of these had been found in court records, it added.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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