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The Djibouti government should immediately release journalist and opposition leader Daher Ahmed Farah from prison, cancel the fine levied against him and allow him to resume publishing his newspaper, Human Rights Watch said today.

"Farah's conviction violates international law protecting freedom of expression," said Peter Takirambudde, Human Rights Watch executive director for Africa. "It is disappointing that a country that so recently promised to uphold international standards has violated them so blatantly."

Djibouti became a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects freedom of expression, in February 2003.

Farah has been jailed since April for publishing an article that criticized the Djibouti army's chief of staff. He is being held in solitary confinement in an 8-by-5-foot cell with scant water rations in temperatures that top 40 degrees Centigrade (104 degrees Fahrenheit).

He was acquitted of the defamation charge at trial, but the verdict was reversed on appeal. In addition to his prison term, the appellate court ordered Farah to pay civil damages of 13 million Djibouti francs (about U.S. $74,000) and a criminal fine of 1 million Djibouti francs (about U.S. $5,500).

These are huge sums in a country where the average per capita income is less than U.S. $800.

Farah is president of the Movement for Democratic Renewal and Development, an opposition political party. He is also editor and publisher of le Renouveau, a weekly newspaper that is one of the few media outlets in Djibouti not owned or controlled by the government or its allies. Because the government and its allies occupy all seats in the national assembly, Djibouti's few independent newspapers are the only available fora for expressing political dissent.

Human Rights Watch sent a letter today to Djibouti's president, Ismaël Omar Guelleh, urging Farah's immediate and unconditional release as well as repeal of the Horn of Africa nation's anti-defamation law. It states that Farah's criminal conviction, the conditions of confinement, and the closure of the newspaper "not only violate international law, but can only serve to undermine the democratic ideals enshrined in the Djibouti Constitution and to threaten the legitimacy of state institutions."

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