Africa

How 'l'affaire Houcine Arfa' has gripped Madagascar and France

The rooftops of Madagascar's capital Antananarivo Image copyright Tim Healy/BBC

The story of a daring escape from a tropical prison sounds like something out of an action film.

But on New Year's Day, fiction became reality as a Frenchman named Houcine Arfa arrived in France, saying he had fled his jail cell in Madagascar.

An ex-boxer and former soldier, Mr Arfa said he had been training the president's guards before things turned sour and he was thrown in prison, later escaping by boat to an island hundreds of miles away, then returning by plane to France.

Madagascar's authorities reject his claims as "pathetic".

The daring escape began on the night of 28 December, when prison guards took Mr Arfa to a hospital in Madagascar's capital, Antananarivo.

There he gave them the slip, abetted, authorities say, by one or several people.

Speaking to French news site Le Parisien, Mr Arfa said he saw no choice at the time but to escape: "If I had stayed, I would have died."

He alleges he was beaten with car fan belts and witnessed the death of several prisoners while held in Tsiafahy, Madagascar's highest security prison.

He also says that in the six months he was held there, he saw guards verbally abusing and urinating on prisoners as a matter of routine.

The exact nature of his activities in Madagascar has intrigued the media in both France and Madagascar, which have dubbed the saga L'affaire Houcine Arfa.

He says he was working as a security advisor to President Hery Rajaonarimampianina, and has told Le Parisien he previously worked in local government in France and in advisor roles to a politician in Guadeloupe plus "a number of African leaders".

According to Mr Arfa, he had serious disagreements with Malagasy authorities and discovered instances of corruption among key presidential figures.

The government denies this, and said Mr Arfa did little more than help train state security services.

Image copyright Tim Healy/BBC
Image caption The story has remained front page news in Madagascar since it broke

In June, he was sentenced to three years in prison for attempted kidnapping, holding illegal arms, corruption and abuse of power.

He maintains that the charges are false.

Whether the charges were real or false, they were serious enough that Mr Arfa was sent to the island nation's highest security prison to serve his sentence.

Image caption Madagascar's highest security facility, Tsiafahy, is just outside the capital Antananarivo while Antanimora prison is in the city

He was later downgraded to the lower security prison Antanimora after authorities saw he was unwell and needed better living conditions.

Mr Arfa says this was all part of his escape plan.

Once he made it out of the hospital, Mr Arfa said he fled the capital, heading to the northern part of the country.

He went by car, covering more than 472 miles (760km) in just over a day.

After he reached the coast, he reportedly switched vehicles, escaping in a small motorised fishing boat known locally as a kwassa-kwassa.

The small craft took him to the French island of Mayotte, a dangerous sea crossing that took 15 hours and spanned 186 miles (300km).

Image copyright Tim Healy/BBC
Image caption Small fishing boats are also used to ferry passengers around Madagascar

From Mayotte he caught a small private plane to La Reunion, another French overseas territory, before taking an international flight home to France.

The question is, how did he get there when his passport and identity papers were back in Madagascar?

That's the next twist in this strange tale.

When Mr Arfa landed in Paris on New Year's Day, he went to the authorities and the French news agency AFP to tell his story.

Image copyright L'Express de Madagascar

Despite Madagascar issuing an international warrant for his arrest, the French embassy in the country admitted it had been assisting Mr Arfa throughout his detention.

But the consulate didn't get Mr Arfa on the plane alone, he says.

He told journalists that the Minister of Justice, Elise Alexandrine Rasolo, had helped him break out of prison in return for 70,000 euro ($86,000; £61,500).

Ms Rasolo has denied the charges, while Malagasy authorities have called Mr Arfa "pathetic" and a "fugitive who should not be believed".

Despite their attempts to get him back, it had until recently seemed unlikely that Mr Arfa would go anywhere.

French citizens are protected from extradition once they are in their own country, as Madagascar's authorities know only too well.

However, France's justice ministry has reportedly told Madagascar it will honour an international arrest warrant issued for Mr Arfa earlier this month.

While Mr Arfa's story continues to dominate the front pages of Malagasy newspapers, serious questions remain.

Who really helped him escape, and just what was he doing in the country?