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(London) - The government of Djibouti should immediately end its systematic crackdown on peaceful critics and the political opposition, Human Rights Watch said today.  Presidential elections are scheduled for April 8, 2011, but since February, the government has banned all demonstrations and arbitrarily arrested and prosecuted peaceful protesters and opposition leaders.

"As elections in Djibouti approach, the government has trampled on those very rights that make a vote free and fair," said Rona Peligal, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch.  "Peaceful protests elsewhere in the region are no justification for the government to deny citizens their basic rights."

The Djibouti government has repeatedly prevented protest rallies since it violently dispersed a peaceful demonstration on February 18 and arrested scores of demonstrators and bystanders. The security forces responded with violence and arrests after demonstrators left the area designated for the rally, and marched to the national stadium.

The February 18rally was called to protest an amendment to the Djibouti constitution that allows the President Ismael Omar Guelleh to run for a third term on April 8. Opposition parties also object to an opaque election system they believe unfairly benefits the president and his party.

Among those arrested on February 18 were three leaders of political opposition parties, who were detained for a day. The government has initiated judicial inquiries for sedition against the three, but has not brought charges against them.  More than 100 people rounded up that day were charged with assault ("atteintes à l'intégrité physique ou psychique de la personne") and demonstrating without a permit.

About 80 were brought to court on February 27. After the judge dismissed 40 cases, proceedings were recessed and the justice minister, Mohammed Barkat Abdillahi, removed the judge and replaced him. Defense lawyers told Human Rights Watch that the new judge then promptly convicted 25 defendants and sentenced them to prison. Two require medical attention but have been denied access to doctors. Others remain incarcerated. According to the Ligue Djiboutienne des Droits Humains (LDDH), Djibouti's main human rights organization, these detainees are among a total of 71 political prisoners in Djibouti.

The opposition had planned demonstrations every Friday until the election. However, there was no demonstration on February 25, as there was a heavy police presence at the stadium plaza, the site of previous protests, and the street leading to it.  On March 3, the Interior Minister Yacin Elmi Bouh denied a permit to hold a demonstration the next day, citing the violence on February 18. 

On March 2, the government expelled Democracy International (DI) from the country. The international election monitoring organization funded by the US Agency for International Development had been providing expert assistance to the Djibouti government to prepare for the election. The expulsion order accused DI of being an "illegal organization" supporting the opposition's "seditious" activities. 

Harassment of the opposition has continued as the elections approach, Human Rights Watch said. On March 11, the authorities rounded up four political party leaders and spirited them outside the city a few hours before a protest meeting they had scheduled for later that day. There is no indication that the government had obtained arrest warrants. The four leaders were released by early evening; no protest occurred in their absence.

The political opposition parties, claiming that the Guelleh administration had made it impossible to conduct a fair election, chose not to nominate candidates for the presidential election, effectively boycotting it. The government used that decision as an excuse to deny permits for rallies in front of opposition headquarters on March 25. Even though the rallies were designed to call attention to what the opposition considers objectionable policies rather than to support a candidate, the Interior Ministry said that only parties fielding candidates could hold public meetings during the two-week election cycle.

The blanket ban on demonstrations contravenes article 15 of the Djiboutian constitution, which protects the rights to freedom of expression.  It also violates articles 19 and 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Djibouti is a party, setting out the rights to free expression and peaceful assembly.

"Repeatedly harassing and threatening opposition leaders and denying permits for protests are flagrant abuses of power," Peligal said.  "Peaceful protest is a fundamental right that is central to a democratic society."

The Djiboutian presidency has been held by a political dynasty since Djibouti's independence in 1977. In 1999, President Guelleh succeeded his uncle, the only other person to hold the presidency. Guelleh was re-elected in 2005, when the opposition parties boycotted the election. They said that they would not have unfettered access to the electorate and that the electoral system easily permitted fraud.

In April 2005, immediately after his re-election, Guelleh told the French newspaper Le Monde that he would not support a constitutional change allowing him to serve beyond his second term.  In 2008, Guelleh's coalition won all the seats in the Djibouti parliament after the opposition parties again boycotted the election, saying the system was unfair.  In April 2010, parliament altered the constitution to abolish term limits.

Because of the opposition's decision not to field candidates against Guelleh in the upcoming election, only one other candidate remains in the presidential race, the former head of the constitutional court, Mohammed Warsama Raguah. 

In late 2010, DI issued a report urging the government to create an independent election commission and otherwise reform an opaque election system to meet minimum international standards. None of the recommendations have been implemented. 

Djibouti has no independent media. The government runs the only newspaper, radio station, and television station in the country. An independent newspaper, Le Renouveau, was closed in 2007 after its editor was prosecuted for criminal libel and fled the country.

The LDDH, led by Jean-Paul Noël Abdi, is the principal human rights organization in the country. Noël Abdi has been arrested numerous times because of his human rights work. He is currently facing charges of alleged participation in an insurrection movement, which is potentially punishable by 15 years in prison. Human Rights Watch has not obtained any credible evidence that implicates Noël Abdi in any way in such a movement. Noël Abdi has been freed for health reasons, but the charge remains.

The French and US governments maintain military bases in Djibouti and provide substantial assistance to the government of Djibouti. Neither has issued public condemnations of the recent events and the deteriorating human rights situation in the country.

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