(Paris)- A Human Rights Watch investigation in Chad has determined that two opposition politicians whom the government says it is not holding were in fact seized by state security forces on February 3. Their arrests were part of a crackdown on political opponents in the capital N’Djamena following a coup attempt by Chadian rebels in early February.

On February 21, the Chadian government stated that an official inquiry had been unable to locate Ibni Oumar Mahamat Saleh, spokesman for a coalition of opposition political parties, and Ngarlejy Yorongar, a prominent opposition member of parliament, nor determine the circumstances of their disappearance. Interior Minister Ahamat Mahamat Bachir later that day announced that Yorongar had been seen in his neighborhood the day before. However, multiple eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch researchers in N’Djamena that Chadian government soldiers took the two men into custody on February 3. Yorongar’s family and lawyers deny that he resurfaced.

“The government says it doesn’t know how Yorongar and Ibni disappeared,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Our inquiry leaves little doubt that it was the government which took them, and we hold the government fully responsible for their well-being and safe return.”

Interior Minister Bachir on February 14 said that the two were seized at a time when rebel forces controlled their N’Djamena neighborhoods, suggesting that the rebels were responsible. Human Rights Watch’s investigation found, however, that in each instance government security forces had reasserted full control over the neighborhoods in question before the reported time of their arrests.

According to eyewitnesses, on February 3 at about 5:30 p.m., soldiers arrived at the home of Ngarlejy Yorongar, president of the political party Federation Action for the Republic (Fédération Action pour la République, FAR). Rebel forces began before noon that day to withdraw from the area, the Moursal neighborhood in N’Djamena’s 6th district, and by 3 p.m. only government forces were seen in the area. Eyewitnesses provided Human Rights Watch with detailed information about the soldiers’ uniforms, insignia and vehicles, indicating that they were members of the Chadian National Army (Armée Nationale Tchadiènne, ANT). These included shoulder patches bearing the Chadian flag, distinctive yellow epaulet bars, and camouflage patterns and colors of uniforms and turbans that were all recognized to be Chadian army.

According to eyewitnesses, about 10 government soldiers forced their way into Yorongar’s home after pounding on his gate. A like number of soldiers waited in the street outside.

An eyewitness described Yorongar’s seizure: “The soldiers didn’t hesitate. They went straight to Yorongar and took him and pushed him. He [Yorongar] said, ‘It’s not necessary to be violent. I’m going with you.’”

Yorongar was last seen being pushed into a new, beige Toyota four-wheel drive vehicle, of a type that is standard issue in the Chadian army. The vehicle had no license plates.

After Interior Minister Bachir announced on February 21 that Yorongar had re-appeared near his house, Foreign Minister Ahmad Allam-Mi accused Yorongar of playing “hide and seek.” Yorongar’s family denied having seen him and accused the government of “moral torture” by making false claims about Yorongar’s whereabouts.

Ibni Oumar Mahamat Saleh, the spokesman of the Coordination for the Defense of the Constitution (Coordination Pour la Défense de la Constitution, CPDC) was also taken away on February 3. At about 7:30 p.m., approximately 10 heavily armed soldiers in a beige Toyota four-wheel drive vehicle arrived at Ibni’s home. As of 3 p.m. that day, only government soldiers were seen in the area, the Deux Chateaux neighborhood in N’Djamena’s 4th district.

An eyewitness told Human Rights Watch: “The soldiers said, ‘Who is the owner of this house?’ Ibni [Saleh] responded very quietly. He said, ‘It’s me.’ They shoved him and his glasses fell, but they didn’t let him pick them up. The soldiers put him in the back of a truck and took him away. He didn’t resist.”

Eyewitnesses similarly detailed the soldiers’ uniforms as those of the Chadian army.

On February 22 the Chadian government announced it would establish a commission of inquiry, “open to the international community if necessary,” to determine the whereabouts of the two missing opposition leaders.

Human Rights Watch is concerned that the two men are victims of enforced disappearance. The International Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances, which Chad signed on February 6, 2006, defines an enforced disappearance as “the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.”

“The Chadian government should publicly acknowledge the whereabouts of Yorongar and Ibni,” said Gagnon. “They should be released immediately, or charged with a crime and accorded all their rights, including immediate access to a lawyer and family, a medical examination, and a hearing before an impartial judge to determine the lawfulness of their detention.”

On February 14, the Chadian government acknowledged custody of another prominent opposition parliamentarian, Lol Mahamat Choua, who had previously been missing. An official described the 70-year-old former president as a “prisoner of war,” saying that he had been “captured on the battlefield” at rebel “headquarters.” According to eyewitnesses, however, Choua was taken away from his home on February 3 at about 5:30 p.m. by approximately 15 soldiers wearing khaki uniforms and turbans. Information provided by eyewitnesses suggests that Choua’s arrest may have been carried out by the Presidential Guard, a branch of the Chadian army that reports directly to President Déby. Two eyewitnesses described the soldiers’ rifles as black, and Presidential Guard soldiers bear assault rifles that are distinct from those issued to other branches of the military in part because of their matte black finish. A third eyewitness said the soldiers bore Presidential Guard logos on their uniforms.

Choua headed a committee implementing an August 2007 agreement between the government and numerous political parties, overseen by the European Union, to implement reforms culminating in free and transparent elections by 2009. Choua is being held without charge in a military prison in N’Djamena. He has been visited by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the French ambassador, and by the European Commission’s delegate in N’Djamena. To date, Choua has been denied visits by family members and his lawyer.

Jean-Bernard Padaré, an attorney who has defended high-profile human rights and civil rights cases in Chad, has received death threats on his mobile phone by unknown persons since he filed a civil suit to learn the whereabouts of the politicians. Padaré has also been subject to harassment and intimidation by persons unknown to him, including on February 20 while in the presence of a Human Rights Watch researcher. In that instance, a man in civilian attire was waiting at Padaré’s car late at night. When confronted, the man concealed what could have been a weapon, walked quickly to a nearby car with yellow governmental license plates and drove away.

Human Rights Watch has confirmed the attempted seizure of other prominent opposition politicians in the immediate aftermath of the February 2-3 coup attempt. Government soldiers attempting to seize opposition politician Saleh Kebzabo at his home in N’Djamena on the evening of February 3 shot and injured a member of his family, according to eyewitnesses. Soldiers in two trucks stopped at the home of Salibou Garba, the secretary of Ibni Oumar Mahamat Saleh’s CCPD coalition, on two occasions on the night of February 3-4, at 7:30 p.m. and again at 2 a.m., according to eyewitnesses, but he was not there. Eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch that two men who may have been government intelligence agents visited the home of opposition parliamentarian Wadal Abdelkader Kamougué on February 4.

Human Rights Watch urged concerned governments to press the Chadian government for the release or charge of the opposition politicians. On February 11, European Union Commissioner Louis Michel called for the “immediate release” of the opposition politicians, a call that was joined on February 22 by Jean Ping, chairperson of the African Union Commission. The 27 EU foreign ministers, on February 18, expressed “deep concern over the arrest of members of the unarmed political opposition in Chad.” French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said on February 22 that President Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit to Chad, planned for late February, would depend, among other things, on “shedding light on the fate of the disappeared opposition leaders.”