Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Human Rights: Gabon releases five journalists and anti-corruption campaigners charged with inciting rebellion

Gabon has provisionally released five journalists and anti-corruption campaigners charged with inciting rebellion for possessing a document critical of long-time president Omar Bongo. The French government wants Gabon to lift its visa restriction on a French lawyer who is representing one of the accused.

Gabon Interior Minister Andre Obame says the journalists and anti-corruption campaigners are charged with possessing "written propaganda with a view to inciting rebellion against state authorities."

The men were arrested two weeks ago for possessing copies of an open letter to President Bongo published last month on a French political blog by Bruno Ben Moubamba, who is the spokesman for a group called the Free Actors of Gabonese Civil Society. The letter asks President Bongo to account for his management of Gabon's finances during more than 40-years in power.

Newspaper editor Dieudonne Kougou was provisionally released one week ago, the other four were released on bail Monday. If convicted, they could be sentenced to five years in prison and fines of more than 500 dollars.

Reporters Without Borders Africa desk chief Ambroise Pierre says Kougou and radio Sainte-Marie technical director Gaston Asseko were arrested for doing their jobs. Pierre says the charges against them are absurd and the group believes the investigating judge will recognize the charges are without substance.

He says the government action is particularly dangerous if other journalists in Gabon, fearing similar treatment, begin self-censoring what they report.

One of the anti-corruption campaigners charged along with the journalists is Gregory Mintsa. He is also a plaintiff in a suit brought by the French chapter of Transparency International that accuses President Bongo of embezzling public funds to buy property in France.

President Bongo denies the charge and is counter-suing for defamation.

French attorney Thierry Levy is representing Mintsa. But Levy's visa for Gabon was canceled when he tried to travel to Libreville last week. Now the French Foreign Ministry is asking the Bongo administration to approve Levy's visa under the 1963 Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty that allows defense attorneys from the two countries to practice equally in France and Gabon.

A French Foreign Ministry spokesman says Paris is asking that the rights of the defense be respected and that those accused have access to council.

Also facing charges are Georges Mpagi, president of the Gabonese Civil Society Network for Good Governance and the national coordinator of the anti-corruption organization Publish What You Pay, Marc Ona, who is also a reporter for Voice of America.


Published with the permission of
Voice of America

*Only two autocratic presidents have ruled Gabon since independence from France in 1960. The current president of Gabon, El Hadj Omar BONGO Ondimba - one of the longest-serving heads of state in the world - has dominated the country's political scene for four decades.

President BONGO introduced a nominal multiparty system and a new constitution in the early 1990s. However, allegations of electoral fraud during local elections in 2002-03 and the presidential elections in 2005 have exposed the weaknesses of formal political structures in Gabon. Gabon's political opposition remains weak, divided, and financially dependent on the current regime. Despite political conditions, a small population, abundant natural resources, and considerable foreign support have helped make Gabon one of the more prosperous and stable African countries.
Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
Putting principles before profits