(Adds IMF comments, details)
By Joe Bavier
ABIDJAN, May 23 (Reuters) - Lawyers for jailed Congo Republic opposition figure Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko called on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to make his release a condition for the approval of a bailout for the debt-crippled nation.
Like other Central African oil producing countries, Congo has been hit by low crude prices. Several neighbours, including Chad and Gabon, have already secured bailouts from the IMF.
Last month the Fund said it had “reached broad understandings on policies” it could support and that it would propose a deal once Congo fulfilled conditions including debt restructuring.
Mokoko, a former army chief and presidential candidate, was jailed for 20 years this month after his conviction on charges of seeking to topple the government of President Denis Sassou-Nguesso.
His supporters said his prosecution was an attempt by Sassou-Nguesso, who has ruled Congo for all but five of the past 38 years, to use the courts to stifle dissent.
Paris-based lawyers Jessica Finelle and Etienne Arnaud wrote to IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde on Tuesday requesting that Congo’s human rights situation be factored into any decision on a bailout.
“We call upon the IMF to make the agreement about to be ratified by the board conditional upon the end of repression of members of the political opposition ... and the immediate release of Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko,” they said.
Mokoko finished third in the 2016 presidential vote and was arrested later that year.
Congo held a referendum in 2015 that changed the constitution, allowing Sassou-Nguesso to seek a third term in office, leading to protests in which at least 18 people were killed by security forces.
Campaign groups say the human rights situation has worsened since the referendum.
Over 20 opposition activists were arrested earlier this month during peaceful protests in the coastal city of Pointe-Noire, according to Amnesty International.
The IMF acknowledged it received the letter but would not say whether it would respond to the demands of the Mokoko’s legal team.
“IMF lending and conditionality decisions are based on considerations that fall within the scope of its mandate, i.e. as a specialised agency tasked with promoting economic and financial stability,” it said.
While the Fund has said that the implementation of reforms to improve governance is among the conditions for an agreement with Congo, it has made no specific mention of human rights.
The IMF said Congo was still in talks with its creditors, which include commodities traders Trafigura and Glencore, to make its debt load more sustainable.
Editing by Richard Balmforth