By Ange Aboa
ABIDJAN (Reuters) - A court in Ivory Coast on Wednesday sentenced 15 former top cocoa sector officials to up to 20 years in prison for corruption under ex-president Laurent Gbagbo, in a bid to clean up the industry in the world's top cocoa grower.
The defendants, popularly known in Ivory Coast as the 'cocoa barons', included the former head of the state's Fund for the Development and Promotion of Coffee and Cocoa Planters (FDPCC), Henry Kassi Amouzou.
He was convicted on Wednesday alongside the former heads of Ivory Coast's main cocoa regulators - the Coffee and Cocoa Board (BCC), the Fund for Regulation and Control (FRC), and the Authority for the Regulation of Coffee and Cocoa (ARCC).
In total, 14 defendants were sentenced to 20 years in prison and one to five years. Fourteen others were acquitted.
The officials were arrested in 2008 and accused of abuse of power, misuse of public funds, embezzlement and forgery between 2002 and 2008.
"The tribunal to judge Henry Kassi Amouzou and others has decided on a verdict of 20 years in prison," said presiding judge Coulibaly Souleymane.
Court documents showed that five of the defendants, including Amouzou, must also pay the Ivorian state a total of 67.246 billion CFA francs ($138 million) in compensation.
Defense lawyer Luc Adje said those convicted would immediately lodge an appeal. They have 20 days to do so.
Adje said the statute of limitations on some of the charges had expired, meaning that his clients should not have been convicted of them.
It was the first time the head of any of Ivory Coast's state-controlled cocoa agencies had been convicted of graft, despite reports from United Nations and non-government organizations including Global Witness of widespread corruption during Gbagbo's time in power, from 2000 to 2010.
"This is a good step forward in ending impunity in business in Ivory Coast," said one political analyst, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the case. "This should be continued in other sectors."
Gbagbo is in detention at the International Criminal Court as prosecutors seek to build a case against him by a mid-November deadline.
He is accused of plunging Ivory Coast into civil war instead of relinquishing power after losing elections to Alassane Ouattara in 2010.
Ouattara has won praise for rapidly reviving the Ivorian economy after the brief 2011 war.
His government launched an audit of public procurement after donors voiced concern that corruption could discourage investors from supplying much-needed capital. ($1 = 486.8130 CFA francs)
(This version of the story corrects to clarify only 14 defendants sentenced to 20 years)
(Reporting by Ange Aboa; writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Kevin Liffey)