Intervention of the Observatory for the protection of human rights defenders: Situation of human rights defenders

The FIDH and the OMCT, in the framework of their joint program, the Observatory for the protection of human rights defenders, draw the attention of the members of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the persistent severe human rights violations perpetrated against human rights defenders on the African continent. The Observatory repeats its request that the African Commission’s Member States commit themselves to take all necessary steps in order to put an end to this recurrent phenomenon of repression and to clearly recognize the essential role of human rights defenders by adopting, at the present session, a regional mechanism of protection for human rights defenders. The adoption of such mechanism has been postponed since several sessions of the Commission. Today, the Observatory solemnly calls the Commission to adopt this mechanism at its 31st session.

Civil society is very active in Africa and, in spite of limited means, its mobilization continues to stem some of the abuses committed by the most repressive States. Civil society’s mobilization must be given credit for the important progress made in the fight against impunity, as a result of the complaints filed by the victims in Senegal, Chad and Belgium against Hissen Habré and his collaborators. The associations defending civil and political rights but also economical and social rights keep developing and the number of activists is growing. The NGOs therefore increasingly appear as unavoidable partners or negotiators for the authorities, given their impact on the national and international scenes. However, their relations with political regimes remain tense and difficult Governments waver between the necessity to take into account civil society participants and feelings of fear and mistrust towards them. Human rights NGOs are systematically labeled as State enemies or political opponents aiming at destabilizing the country.

These defenders are harassed, arbitrarily prosecuted, arrested, detained, on the only grounds of their peaceful commitment in favor of fundamental freedoms, democracy and Rule of Law in their country.

The States use multiple and sophisticated methods of repression, in total contradiction with the Declaration on human rights defenders adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 9 December 1998 .

In several countries, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Liberia and Chad, the defenders are arrested and detained, without any charges pronounced against them. Mr. N’sii Luanda, President of the Human Rights Observers Committee (CODHO), has been detained since 19 April 2002, when he had been arrested at his residence by two inspectors of the Court of Military Order (COM). Under the pretext of treason acts, the inspectors proceeded to the search of his house, seized documents and took Mr. N’sii Luanda to subject him to several questionings on his organization, his activities, his trips and his acquaintances. The CODHO’s President had already been threatened many times and arbitrarily detained from 5 June to 7 September 2001, on the simple grounds that he was supposedly in contact with persons suspected of betrayal of national security. Besides, Mr. Golden Misabiko, President of the African Association for the Defense of Human Rights (ASADHO)/ Katanga’s Section, was forced to flee DRC because of new arrest threats against him. He had been arbitrarily detained from 5 February to 13 September 2001. In Rwanda, Mr. Laurien Ntezimana, founder of the Association Modeste and Innocent (AMI), was arrested on 26 January 2002 in Butare, officially to hear his explanations on the logo of the AMI’s review, which also uses a term employed by the Democratic Party for Renewal (PDR). Questioned by the police squad, he was transferred to the prison of Butare where he was detained until 20 February 2002 without any charges being held against him. In Liberia, the lawyer and human rights defender, Tiawan Gongloe, was detained from 24 April to 1st May 2002, first in the police offices before being transferred to the hospital, because of the acts of torture he was subjected to during his first night of detention. In Chad, Mr. Silas Ndadoum, vice-president of the section of the Chadian League for Human Rights (LTDH) in Moundou, was arrested in early December 2001 after he drew the authorities’ attention on the existence of a leaflet calling for holy war. He was detained for five days before being released. Finally, the detention in police custody constitutes another form of arbitrary detention: in Mauritania, Mr. Boubacar Ould Messaoud, President of SOS-Slaves, was arrested on 2nd May and put on detention, in connection with his denunciations of the use of torture and two days before his departure for Pretoria where he was to represent a group of 13 Mauritanian human rights organizations at the 31st session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

In other countries, the instrumentalization of the judicial power for political ends makes it possible to sanction the defenders’ activity. In Algeria, Mr. Mohamed Smain, in charge of the Relizane section of the Algerian League for the defense of human rights (LADDH) and actively committed beside families of disappeared persons, was sentenced on appeal to one year of prison and a 210.000 dinar fine on 24 February 2002. He was prosecuted for libel, on the basis of a complaint filed by Hadj Fergane and eight members of his militia, after Mr. Smain alerted the Algerian press on the exhumation of mass graves by the police forces and this same militia. Besides, Mr. Larbi Tahar, member of the section of the LADDH in Labiod Sid Echikh, was sentenced on 23 March 2002 to 6 months of imprisonment for "incitement to illegal gathering and resistance to the police forces" ; he had been arrested following peaceful demonstrations against the deterioration of the town’s economic and social situation, on 4 and 5 October 2001. He has since been detained in extremely precarious conditions, in a cell reserved to death convicts, and where several persons involved in terrorism cases are held. In Ethiopia, Pr. Mesfin Wolde Mariam and Dr. Berhanu Nega, of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO), keep facing judicial proceedings for "incitement to violence and riot", in connection with student demonstrations in favor of freedom of expression and association in April 2001. Their trial, which was to be held on 5 December 2001 before being put back to 10 April 2002, was postponed once again. In Egypt, Hafez Abu Sa’eda, Secretary general of the Egyptian Organization on Human Rights, is still the object of judicial proceedings for receiving a cheque of the British Embassy in 1998 in the name of his organization.

Besides these legal proceedings, administrative measures are obviously aimed at hindering the defenders’ activities. In Sudan, on the 2nd of February 2002, Ms. Tahani Ibrahim Ahmed, a student at the Technological Science University in Omdurman, and a member of the student network of the Sudanese Victims of Torture Group (SVTG), was suspended from university for 12 months because of her activities in favour of human rights. To be readmitted, she will have to sign a commitment for good behaviour, according to the law on Discipline and Code of Conduct for students, which prohibits students from engaging in political activities, or activities related to human rights defense. In Chad, M Souleymane Guengueng, vice president of the Association for victims of crimes and political repression in Chad (AVCRP) was suspended from his position with the Commission of Lake Chad (CBLT) on 18 March 2002, for a 30 day period, because of his activities in ACVRP. In Algeria, Mohamed Smaïn is still deprived of his passport and driving licence since February 2001, which violates his freedom of movement and seriously hinders his professional activity.

The Observatory has also registered several cases of physical attacks against defenders. In Burundi, on 15 February 2002, M. Celcius Barahinduka, member of the executive committee of the Burundi League for Human Rights (Iteka) was going to the Bururi district, to open a new section of the League ; his driver, M. Banini, was threatened and hit by Major Bizuru, who accused him of being there on a " secret " mission. He was locked up in a cell at the Bururi Brigade, and freed the next day. In Zimbabwe, M. Johannes Mudzingwa, member of Zimrights, was attacked on 13 December 2001 by members of the ZANU PF party and war veterans. After being asked to produce the card of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC, an opposition party) of which he is not a member, he was taken to the bush and beaten for four hours. These facts were reported to the police but were not even investigated. In Tunisia, where brutality against defenders is widespread, M. Nizar Amami, a member of the Coordination Committee of the RAID (Gathering for an Inernational Alternative to Development, Tunisian section of ATTAC), was attacked and injured in broad daylight in front of his own house by three individuals who fled by car, on 26 December 2001. Besides, on March 30, several lawyers members of the group for the defence of Hamma Hammami, founder of the communist party for workers in Tunisia, were violently beaten by the police. The members were Bochra Belhadj Hamida, Omar Mestiri, Jameldine Bida, Safouane Ben M’aras et Hayet El Jazar.

In some countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo or in Tunisia, defenders are systematically harassed. In the DRC, M. Dismas Kitenge Senga, president of the Lotus Group (NGO for the defence of human rights based in Kisangani) was in 2001 submitted to pressures from the authorities of the Congolese Rally for Democracy (Rassemblement congolais pour la démocratie, RCD). The same occurred to all human rights defenders in the region. They are the target of RCD authorities, in particular because of their stand in favour of the demilitarisation of the town of Kisangani and their collaboration with international institutions and officials. The RCD authorities accuse the Lotus Group and its president of treason, spying for foreign powers and for the Kinshasa government, and call for rebellion. These smear and intimidation campaigns are conducted through the national radio and television (RTNC) or during political meetings of the RCD in the region. In Tunisia, defenders are permanently followed by the police. They are systematically harassed: their offices and homes are burgled, their cars are sabotaged, etc. In Tanzania, in November 2001, the organisation LEAT (Lawyers Environmental Action Team) was searched and documents on the 1996 massacre of 50 minors at the Bulyanhulu Mine were taken. The president and a lawyer from the organisation were threatened with legal proceedings, because of the repeated calls of the organisation in favour of an independent inquiry on the 1996 events.

Finally, the defenders’ action is hindered by breaches to the freedom of association and meeting. In April 2001, Rwanda adopted a law that grants the government wide powers to intervene in the work of NGOs. In Uganda, the Parliament is currently examining a bill. The text strengthens the powers of the department in charge of NGO registration in conformity with the 1989 law, and reinforces the sanctions against NGOs, should they carry out activities without being previously registered. In Tunisia, the National Council of Freedoms in Tunisia (CNLT) and the RAID still have no official recognition. The same goes for the Centre for the Independence of Justice (CIJ), headed by Judge Mokhtar Yahyaoui, dismissed on 29 December 2001, after denouncing the lack of independence of justice in Tunisia in an open letter to the President of the Republic. In Egypt, the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Development Studies remains closed. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the mayor of Kisangani has prohibited the day of reflection on the assessment of the peace process in RDC and on the organisation of the police and the administration of Kisangani after the demilitarisation, planned for January 4, 2002 and organised by the NGO Christian Group for Peace.

The Observatory recalls the essential role of human rights defenders in the prevention of conflicts, the achievement of the Rule of Law and democracy, all over the world and in particular in Africa. They play an essential role in the fight for the implementation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights instruments, such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. In this respect, the Observatory calls the States of the Commission to spare no effort to ensure that the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted by a large majority in 1998, be circulated as widely as possible.

In 2001, the Observatory intervened during the sessions of the African Commission, in Tripoli (23 April to 7 May 2001), and in Banjul (13 to 27 October 2001). The Observatory insisted on the persistence of violence and breaches to human rights defenders in Africa and on the necessity of adopting a specific mechanism for protection on a regional scale, with a mandate to investigate and react to individual cases. This mechanism would work in close co-operation with Mrs. Hina Jilani, Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on Human Rights Defenders.

The regionalization of the promotion and protection of human rights defenders is becoming increasingly necessary and effective. The work carried out in that respect by the Inter American Commission for Human Rights is a clear example of this. The African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights must take the same steps.

Read more
communique