Dissidents in Gabon tortured, harrassed and arbitrarily detained

As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, electoral violence in 2016 led to escalating repression of dissent by Gabonese authorities. On 4th November, the African Commission on Human and People's Rights (ACHPR) passed a resolution, strongly condemning the violence of 2016 and urging the government to conduct a thorough investigation into abuses committed during the elections. In the new year, as the nation readied itself to host the African Cup of Nations in early January, many hoped that the situation would improve because of increased international scrutiny. Yet, allegations of human rights violations, including the arbitrary arrest and detention of political opponents, the use of excessive force against protesters as well as allegations of mistreatment during detention have continued to blight the Gabonese authorities' reputation.

Association

The harassment of lawyers working on issues related to the electoral violence in 2016 has recently gotten worse. Reports of frequent intimidation of Gabonese lawyers working with the International Criminal Court (ICC) have surfaced, leading many to question the likelihood of an impartial investigation into abuses committed by security forces. On 8th December, Eric Iga Iga, a lawyer working with opposition leader Jean Ping, fled to a foreign country's embassy for fear of persecution by Gabonese authorities. Mr. Iga Iga gained notoriety as part of Ping's legal team challenging the electoral process during the highly contested presidential elections. In a statement, Jean Ping drew attention to Mr. Iga Iga's unwarranted harassment:  

'Late during the night of Thursday, one of my lawyers, Mr Eric Iga Iga, received a visit from elements presenting themselves as belonging to the defence and security services – more specifically the military police – in the most completely illegal way.'

It is highly likely that the targetting of Eric Iga Iga is a reprisal for his legitimate work as a lawyer. There is a clear need for legal professionals to hold the authorities to accoun, in a context where official tallies of electoral violence put the death toll at three peeople, whereas opposition estimates are much higher at 53.

In a further illustration of the seriousness of the situation, president of the Bar in Gabon, Mr. Akoumbou Oluna Me recently spoke out about two attacks on him over the past year. In a statement, he drew attention to the menacing undercurrent which often goes beyond intimidatory, and frequently manifests in the real threat of physical violence against lawyers. 

Peaceful Assembly 

Gabon's hosting of the African Cup of Nations has prompted protests calling for a boycott from activists aligned to political opposition. On 18th January, four protesters were arrested for participating in an unauthorised demonstration in Nkembo, which called upon Gabonese people and the international community to boycott the football tournament. On 25th January, after nearly 8 days in custody they were provisionally released on bail. Many have claimed that the authorities' swift clampdown on the peaceful protest was unjustified, as the demonstration did not threaten to disturb public order. Others have drawn attention to the activists' long detention, which is in contravention of the Criminal Procedure Code. The Code states that police custody can not exceed 48 hours, it can only be extended for a further 48 hours if written permission from the prosecutor is granted.

As the video below demonstrates, opinions in Gabon remain split over whether the country should have hosted the African Cup of Nations.

Expression

On November 3rd, Gabonese security forces raided the offices of triweekly newspaper Echos du Nord, in connection with a story that insinuated that the head of the Directorate of Documentation and Immigration was involved in corruption and was planning a coup. The news outlet is aligned to the political opposition. Fourteen people were arrested for questioning, with credible evidence emerging that a female journalist was tortured by security forces. In a statement, the journalist, Raissa Oyasseko stated: 

'I was severely tortured. They tied me up, beat me several times on my feet, thighs and buttocks.'

Many have viewed the raid on the news outlet as indicative of a worsening environment for critical journalism in Gabon. 

On 5th January, Gabonese president Ali Bongo commented on the new Communication Code that entered into force on 2nd January. He called upon journalists and news outlets to improve their ways of working and become more professional, seeing a strong press as an essential platform for democratic debate. Despite his rhetoric, the President was quickly challenged by members of the press who drew attention to the restrictive nature of the new code. International CSO, Reporters Without Borders has been sharply critical of the new regulations and the declining environment for independent journalism in Gabon. In a recent statement, the organisation noted: 

'Gabon’s communication code restricts the freedoms of media and journalists without providing a clear legal framework that protects the media profession...The vague wording, the imprecise definitions of offences and the constraints imposed on the media just reinforce the threat to free speech and encourage self-censorship.'

Many freedom of speech advocates claim that the new codes' restrictive provisions are an unnecessary burden on journalists and designed to unjustifiably control their work.