(Nairobi, April 21, 2017) – Equatorial Guinean authorities should immediately release two men who head the country’s leading human rights organization, seven human rights and transparency organizations said.
The police detained Enrique Asumu and Alfredo Okenve, who head the Center for Development Studies and Initiatives (CEID), on April 17, 2017, and have exceeded the 72-hour period that Equatorial Guinean law permits them to detain a person without charge.
“The authorities have a long history of harassing, arbitrarily detaining, and generally interfering with the work of human rights defenders in Equatorial Guinea,” said Tutu Alicante, executive director of EG Justice, which monitors human rights abuses in Equatorial Guinea. “This latest incident shows the authorities’ willingness to trample on the country’s due process laws to intimidate and silence dissent.”
The organizations raising their concerns about the detention are Human Rights Watch, EG Justice, Publish What You Pay, Transparency International, the UNCAC Coalition, Amnesty International, and the International Anti-Corruption Conference.
Asumu is the president, and Okenve vice president, of CEID. On April 16, authorities prevented Asumu from boarding a flight from the country’s island capital, Malabo, to the mainland city of Bata, claiming they were acting on the orders of the minister of national security, said a colleague of Asumu’s who was present and Asumu’s lawyer.
The following day, Asumu and Okenye visited the ministry’s offices, which are housed in same building as the Central Police Station in Malabo. The national security minister interrogated the two men in his office for more than five hours, said two colleagues who accompanied them to the meeting and waited outside. After the meeting ended, at about 6 p.m., the authorities prevented Asumu and Okenve from leaving the building, and they continue to hold them there.
The police have permitted the colleagues, as well as family members, to visit Asumu and Okenve, and have allowed them access to their lawyers. But the authorities have not brought them before a judge, which the law requires within 24 hours. Nor have the authorities charged them, which under Equatorial Guinean law must take place within 72 hours.
The Ministry of the Interior ordered CEID to suspend its activities indefinitely in March 2016. Colleagues who have spoken with Asumu and Okenve said that the authorities have threatened to fine them 10 million CFA francs (US$16,000) for violating this order.
The ministry issued the order after shutting down a youth meeting that it contends included statements by participants that constituted incitement, a charge CEID maintains is false and politically motivated. The organization appealed the suspension order, but received no response, a representative from the organization said.
The organization announced that it would resume its activities in September 2016. A representative of the organization contended that the April 2016 suspension of its operations was effective only for three months. Since then, it has organized events attended by representatives from various government ministries.
The government of Equatorial Guinea is applying to join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), an effort that brings together governments, companies, and nongovernmental groups to encourage better governance of resource-rich countries by fostering open public debate about the use of oil, gas, and mining revenues. The EITI requires member governments to foster “an enabling environment for civil society” and to “refrain from actions which result in narrowing or restricting public debate in relation to implementation of the EITI.”
Equatorial Guinea has been dogged by corruption scandals exacerbated by the lack of transparency related to natural resource revenues. The suspension of the country’s leading organization promoting transparency and respect for human rights, and the detention of its leadership, send the wrong signal about the government’s commitment to combatting corruption, the groups said.
“These detentions make the government’s promises to respect civil society as part of its bid to join EITI ring hollow,” said Elisa Peter, executive director of Publish What You Pay. “They threaten to topple the country’s EITI candidacy and send the message that the government will not tolerate independent voices.”
When CEID resumed its activities in September 2016, it also resumed its role as a member of the national steering committee that involves government officials, oil companies, and civil society as the first stage in applying for EITI membership. The national steering committee last met on April 12, and the minister of mines attended an event the human rights group held on April 14 in celebration of its twentieth anniversary.
“The government works with CEID when it wants to feign respect for civil society, but then keeps this suspension order hanging over it like the sword of Damocles,” said Sarah Saadoun, a business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “By bullying two of the country’s most respected human rights defenders, the government seems to be trying to silence civil society at a moment of rising anger over the country’s deepening economic crisis.”
Update: Enrique Asumu was released on April 25 and Alfredo Okenve was released on May 3. Both were required to pay an arbitrary fine of 2 million CFA francs (US$3,325) to secure their release.