Concerns over space for opposition and dissent ahead of 2020 presidential elections
Wave of arrests of opposition members
On 23rd December 2019, Côte d’Ivoire's public prosecutor issued an arrest warrant against former rebel leader, former prime minister and presidential candidate Guillaume Soro. Soro is accused of attempts to undermine the authority of the state and territorial integrity, embezzlement and money laundering. Soro was set to arrive in Abidjan on 23rd December after spending months abroad, but his flight was re-routed to Accra. According to news reports, a massive deployment of security forces, including anti-riot police, was stationed on the route from the airport to Soro's residence, located close to the airport, to 'drive back any individual going [to the airport] for a possible welcoming of the ex-PAN [president of the National Assembly]' and to 'prevent any assembly or gatherings'.
Security officers surrounded the premises of Soro's political party Générations et peuples solidaires (GPS) in Abidjan's suburb of Cocody on 23rd December 2019, where a GPS press conference was taking place. Tear gas was reportedly used against GPS supporters who gathered outside the premises to fend off the security officers. After the gate of the premises was forced open, police officers and gendarmes ordered all to leave, and confiscated the cameras and mobile phones of several journalists, according to AFP correspondents.
A total of 17 persons related to the political opposition, including five members of parliament, were arrested between 23rd December 2019 and 31st December 2019 in Abidjan. According to Amnesty International, thirteen of those arrested have been charged with 'publishing false news, undermining public order and the authority of the state’ and some detainees have been denied access to their lawyers.
#Côtedivoire: Journalist & #humanrights defender Konan Yao Hubert on trial & detained in poor conditions in #Bouaké for peacefully protesting the #environmental consequences of a gold mine.— Front Line Defenders (@FrontLineHRD) November 6, 2019
Our appeal: https://t.co/VfzBKZRFS6 pic.twitter.com/4KaqQ7GgWP
On 4th August 2019, police officers arrested human rights defender and journalism student Konan Yao Hubert at a bus station in Djékanou, according to Front Line Defenders. Police officers also reportedly physically attacked him when Yao Hubert resisted the arrest when no arrest warrant was presented. The HRD was arrested in relation to a protest he assisted in organising a day earlier, on 3rd August 2019, of the N'da-kouassikro community against the opening of a gold mine operated by Mondial Mines. Yao Hubert was charged with 'incitement and disturbance of public order' and 'assault and battery of gendarmes on duty', and appeared before the Court of First Instance of Bouaké in a closed hearing on 30th October 2019.
Arbitrary detention activists
On 23rd July 2019, five members of the civil society coalition ‘Les Indignés’ and Le Temps journalist Marcel Dezogno were arbitrarily arrested in front of the headquarters of the Independent Electoral Commission (CEI) in Abidjan as they were there to meet CEI officials The group originally planned a sit-in in front of the CEI on 23rd July to protest against reforms to the electoral institution that was recently adopted, but failed to receive permission from local authorities to hold the sit-in. According to news reports, the six were released the following day.
On 31st July 2019, online activist Soro Tangboho, also known as Carton Noir, was sentenced, on appeal, to a longer prison sentence of two years for 'disturbing public order' and 'incitement to xenophobia'. As reported previously on the Monitor, Tangboho was detained on 8th November 2018 in the city of Korogho for livestreaming a video on Facebook of police officers, who according to the activist, were racketeering motorcycle drivers.
Déclaration de la Coalition Tournons la Page – Côte d’Ivoire :— Tournons la Page (@TournonsLaPage) December 23, 2019
La liberté de manifester pour tous en Côte d’Ivoirehttps://t.co/p7xj5F0vlj
Opposition protest and meeting banned
According to news reports, the mayor of the Abidjan suburb of Yopougon issued an order prohibiting 'all public protests which could lead to movements of crowds in the open spaces of the community' from 16th December 2019 to 5th January 2020. This order de facto banned an opposition meeting planned for 21st December 2019 in Yopougon. The meeting was initially planned for 14th December 2019, but was banned on the grounds of another protest taking place that day.
An opposition protest planned for 5th August 2019 by supporters of opposition party Parti Democratique de Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI) in Sanguoine was banned by local authorities, said the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA). Organisers of the protest claim that they had notified the authorities of the protest on 2nd August 2019, but did not hear back from them. On the day of the protest, authorities denied having received the notice, and banned the protest. Security forces were reportedly deployed at the planned venue of the protest, the Place Garnison, to disperse PDCI supporters who had already gathered.
Opposition member Valentin Kouassi was arrested on 1st July 2019 in relation to a rally on 23rd June 2019 in Adzopé, a town 100 km north of Abidjan. Kouassi was released, but charged with 'disturbance of public order' and placed under judicial control.
New Criminal Code: prison sentence for 'undeclared' and banned protests
On 18th June 2019, the Committee on General and Institutional Affairs of the National Assembly approved a new Criminal Code, which provides prison sentences and fines for those organising or participating in 'undeclared' or banned protests, in its articles 197 to 199, de facto criminalising spontaneous protests. Organising such protests can now lead to a prison sentence of one to three years and a fine of 500,000 francs CFA (834 USD) to 5,000,000 francs CFA (8,340 USD).
Presidential hopeful Soro should drop complaint against Ivory Coast journalist https://t.co/4CN2cMGa98— Committee to Protect Journalists (@pressfreedom) June 9, 2019
On 31st May 2019, journalist and director for the weekly L'Essor Ivoirien, Sidi Tehra was summoned to a hearing before the Court of First Instance of Abidjan-Plateau following a defamation complaint by politician Guillaume Soro. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), who spoke with the journalist, Tehra is accused of defaming Soro by spreading false information, related to an article published in L'Essor Ivoirien in May 2019 alleging that Soro distributed arms in the north of the country. The prosecution document, seen by CPJ, invokes article 90 of the Press Law, which sets a maximum fine of three million francs CFA for defamation (4,991 USD), and article 173 of the Criminal Code on 'spreading false information', which provides for a maximum prison sentence of three years and a maximum fine of five million francs CFA (8,319 USD) if found guilty. Angela Quintal of CPJ commented:
"Guillaume Soro should show that he is a champion for democracy and a free press by withdrawing his legal complaint against L'Essor Ivoirien director Sidi Tehra and working to reform Ivory Coast's penal code to end the criminalisation of journalism."
The court hearing was reportedly postponed. No further information was available at the time of writing.