Written intervention of The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders

FIDH and OMCT, in the framework of their joint programme the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, welcome the establishment of a focal point on human rights defenders during the 34th session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and call for its renewal in a context in which violations against human rights defenders multiply.
Indeed, the Observatory wishes to bring to the attention of the members of the Commission, the persistence of grave human rights violations perpetrated against human rights defenders in member states of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
The Observatory is notably concerned by the growing use by several states of repressive measures such as arbitrary arrests, detentions and abductions, torture and ill-treatment targeting human rights defenders. Moreover, the use of legislative measures and regulations in order to hinder the activities of human rights defenders remain a systematic practice in the region.
These repressive measures target many of the rights provided for by the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (DHRD)1. They particularly target the right to assembly and issue information about all human rights (Chad, DRC), the right to receive funds for the purpose of promoting human rights (Tunisia) and the right to assemble peacefully (Zimbabwe). These repressive measures constitute a violation of the States’ obligation to take all necessary measures in order to ensure the protection of human rights defenders2.
The Observatory particularly wishes to bring to the attention of the members of the Commission, the grave violations to which human rights defenders are subjected to, not only in contexts of open armed conflicts such as in Sudan, notably in the Darfur province where human rights defenders have been arrested and tortured, or in Côte d’Ivoire where they are forced to carry out their activities in a climate of constant threat and insecurity, but also in situations of post-conflict, such as in the Democratic republic of Congo (DRC) where an increase of violations has been reported in the past few months, as well as in Burundi where human rights defenders are threatened because of their campaign against impunity.

I - Arbitrary arrests / abductions, detentions and torture

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mr. François Butedi, a member of the League of Electors (Ligue des Electeurs - LE) and Mr. Dieudonné Benn Masudi Kingombe, executive director of the Human Rights and Humanitarian Law Centre (Centre des droits de l’Homme et du droit humanitaire - CDH) were arrested, beaten and detained for several hours on November 13, 2003 and April 10, 2004 respectively, on the grounds that they had gathered information on human rights violations and on the insecurity in the country. Some of these documents had enabled them to finalise the report presented by the LE to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights during the 34th session last October.
Another member of LE, Miss Ngandu Kabongo, was arrested, interrogated and threatened on November 29, 2003, for the forth time in one year, because of her inquiry into cases of rape perpetrated by militiamen in zones of combat. She was released a few hours later but was forced to leave the country shortly after these events.
Further East, in the region of Beni, the chief of the African Association for the Defence of Human Rights’ (Association africaine des droits de l’Homme - ASADHO) section in Mangina, and one of his work colleagues were arrested, taken to the military camp of this area and tortured for having opposed the drafting of a 16 year-old former Maï-Maï combatant.
In the region of Opala, Mr. Patrice Botalimbo, a member of Lotus Group, was arrested by the security services on November 30, 2003, while he was carrying out a training programme on civil rights and duties. He was subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment during his detention and was only released on December 2, 2004.

In Sudan, many human rights defenders have been arrested namely due to their activities in favour of fundamental freedoms in the Darfur province. For instance, Mr. Osman Adam Abdel Mawla of the Nyala section of Sudan Social Development Organisation (SUDO), a human rights and social development NGO, was arrested on May 5, 2004 and remains in detention. He has reportedly been tortured by the security services due to his campaign in favour of the displaced population in the Darfur province.
The President of SUDO, Mr. Ibrahim Adam Madawi, was arrested on December 27, 2003 and also remains in detention, in conditions that give reasons to fear for his physical integrity. Also related with the situation in Darfur, a member of Sudan Organisation against Torture (SOAT), Mr. Salih Mahmoud Osman was arrested on February 1, 2004 and remains in detention without any charges having been brought against him. In the past year, he has been providing free legal assistance to hundreds of victims of human rights violations and people sentenced to death or to harsh sentences (cross amputation) in the region of Darfur.
In January 2004, at Khartoum University, two students, Mr. Waiel Taha and Mr. Yousif Fat’h Al Rahman, who is also a member of SOAT, were arrested, threatened and tortured. Mr. Taha was charged with plot, illegal sit-in and destruction of a banner.

In other States, human rights defenders have been arrested for enjoying their freedom of expression. This is namely the case in Guinea-Bissau, where on March 30, 2004, Mr. Jao Vaz Mane, Vice-president of the Guinean League for Human Rights (Ligue Guinéenne des droits de l’Homme - LGDH) was arrested by the police forces because he had publicly criticised their methods, which had led to the death of a young man. Mr. Vaz Mane was taken to the scene of the crime where he was pointed at by the police as the murderer in front of the crowd standing by. He was then beaten by the crowd until someone recognised him and was able to stop the popular reprisal. Mr. Vaz Mane was only released after five hours of detention in the police station, during which he was subjected to threats.

In Chad, the Director of the private radio station Brakoss was arrested following the broadcasting of the interview of an opposition leader. After being closed for a week, the radio station opened again, but with a limited programme.

In Algeria, Mr. Mohammed Smaïn, head of the Algerian League for the Protection of Human Rights (Ligue algérienne de défense des droits de l’Homme - LADDH) in Relizane, was arrested on April 10, 2004, when he was in presence of journalists investigating on forces disappearances. He was detained for 20 hours.

Moreover, many arrests have taken place in Zimbabwe, in a context where peaceful gathering are systematically repressed: on October 8, and 9, 2003, during peaceful demonstrations, 165 members of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) were arrested; on November 18, 2003, two members of ZCTU were arrested and severely beaten for having organised a peaceful demonstration in front of the Zimbabwean Railways Society (Société de chemins de fers du Zimbabwe); on October 22, nearly 400 activists, who were demonstrating peacefully in Harare, were beaten and then arrested by police forces. They were only released the following day after paying a fine and without any charges having be brought against them; on April 22, 2004, Mr. Tinashe Lucas Chimedza, a student and a social and youth rights activist, was arrested as he was preparing to give a speech on the right to education during a peaceful meeting and ill-treated. Ms. Mabel Sikhosana, head of Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights) in the Masvingo region, was arrested on April 27, 2004. The next day, Ms. Sheba Phiri, Vice-president of ZimRights, was also arrested, her apartment searched and some documents were confiscated.

Finally, cases of abductions and disappearances have recently been reported: in Libya, Mr. Fathi El-Jahmi, sentenced in 2002 to several years in prison because of his statements in favour of the establishment of fundamental human rights and who had been released on March 12, 2004, was abducted on April 4, 2004, by unidentified members of the security services. His whereabouts remain unknown to this day. It seems that his disappearance is linked to his statements about conditions of detention and acts of torture he was allegedly subjected to during his detention. In the Côte d’Ivoire, the fate of the Franco-Canadian independent journalist, Mr. Guy-André Kieffer, who was inquiring about corruption, remains unknown since April 16, 2004, which gives reasons to fears for his life and physical integrity.

II - Physical attacks and threats

The Observatory is also concerned over other enforcement methods used by some States endangering the physical integrity of human rights defenders as well as their organisations.

For instance, in Tunisia, on January 5, 2004, Ms Sihem Ben Sedrine, former spokesperson of the National Council for Freedom in Tunisia (Conseil national des libertés en Tunisie - CNLT), was on her way to the headquarters of CNLT when she was violently punched by three unidentified individuals.

In Nigeria, on October 24, 2003, around twenty armed men barged into the premises of the Consulting Center for Constitutional Rights and Justice (CCCRJ) in Port-Hacourt. After ransacking the place, the assailants threatened to kill the president of the organisation and members who were present, if the premises were not evacuated within 24 hours. When this deadline was reached, the assailants came back to ransack and destroy the rest of the material. The Nigerian police forces have so far been inactive in this case.

In Zimbabwe, the home of Mr. Arnold Tsunga, President of ZimRights and of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), was robbed on April 23, 2004. The only things that were stolen were electronic documents and publications concerning ZimRights. This organisation had documented more than 275 cases of aggression and intimidation by the police or their agents, between January and April 2004, against human rights defenders, members of the opposition and trade unionists.

In Cameroon, the director of Human Rights Defence Group (HRDG) based in Bamendan, was harassed on several occasions and received death threats. Furthermore, the offices of the Christians’ action for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT-Littoral) in Douala were surrounded by the police on November 28, 2003. In a separate incident, the locks were forced open and the President, Ms. Madelaine Afite, was subjected to many anonymous phone calls. In the Grand Nord region, activists of the Movement for the Defence of Human Rights and Freedoms (Mouvement pour la défense des droits de l’Homme et des libertés - MDDHL) are frequently subjected to harassment. On December 10, 2003, a woman came to the headquarters of MDDHL, whose director is Mr. Abdoulaye Math, presenting herself as his wife. During more 24 hours, the woman occupied the premises of the organisation, threatening Mr. Math of filing a complaint against him for rape. She then physically attacked him and broke his arm. The police intervened and held Mr. Math in the premises all night without providing him with any medical treatment.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Observatory is particularly concerned over the increasing violence, threats and harassment to which human rights defenders are subjected to. For instance, the information according to which the National Intelligence Agency (Agence nationale de renseignement - ANR) of Katanga has a list of name of roughly ten people to be arrested, is particularly worrying. This list reportedly includes members of the African Association for the Defence of Human Rights (Association africaine des droits de l’Homme - ASADHO) in Katanga and of other NGOs. Mr. Grégoire Tschisabamka, Secretary General of the Human Rights and Humanitarian Law Centre (CDH) is still receiving death threats since April 10, 2004. Mr. Paul Nsapu, President of League of Electors (LE) was victim of an attempted car accident after he had received similar threats. Two cars with tinted windows and covered number-plates, followed him and "sandwiched" him as he was driving home from a seminar organised by the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF). These events occurred a day after an interview of Mr. Paul Nsapu, on the political situation in DRC and on a case before the International Criminal Court (ICC) concerning impunity for human rights violation in east DRC, was broadcasted on local television.

III - Defamation

In addition to the acts of violence mention above, human rights defenders are also subjected to defamation. In Senegal, the National Organisation for Human Rights (Organisation nationale des droits de l’Homme - ONDH) was targeted in the beginning of January 2004, by a large scale defamation campaign, after it had published a press release concerning death threats against Mr. Théodore Adrien Sarr, archbishop of Dakar. A mysterious "Movement of the Alternation Sentinels" (Mouvement des Sentinelles de l’Alternance) issued a press release requesting that the members of ONDH be questioned by the police and taken to court. The press release also accused human rights organisations of being "political parties in disguise (...) who encourage violence in a cyclic manner".
At the end of October, the authorities in Cameroon set up an intimidation and defamation campaign against Cameroonese NGOs who had contributed to an FIDH report entitled "La torture au Cameroun, une réalité banale, une impunité systématique". In the Northern part of the country, several local radio stations, among which Radio Maroua, broadcasted on December 10, 2003, discrediting comments about human rights defenders, defining them as "crooks who tarnish the image of this country".

In Congo-Brazzaville, the authorities have degraded, through state-run media, the statements and activities of the Congolese Observatory for Human Rights (Observatoire congolais des droits de l’Homme - OCDH) and of the FIDH. On December 12, 2003, during a press conference, the Communication Minister and the spokesperson of the Government, Mr. Akouala, considered that the statement of the President of the FIDH, defining peace in Congo as "unstable", was "a blatant subversion and destabilisation offence" and that this sort of judgement "is not part of the work of human rights defenders". On November 4, 2003, Mr. Akouala had told FIDH and OCDH representatives that "behind every journalist lies a politician" and that "several newspaper may well disappear".

In Togo, where it is almost impossible to carry out any sort of activities in favour of human rights because the repression is so heavy, members of the Christians’ action for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT) - Togo continue to be subjected to acts of intimidation, and its President remains in exile.

IV - Legal proceedings and administrative measures

The use of the judiciary as a tool of repression still prevails in some countries, notably in Tunisia, where Ms. Om Zied, a human rights journalist and activist was sentenced, in appeal, to six months suspended sentence and a heavy fine because she had written in a forbidden newspaper.

In some other countries, the authorities use administrative measures infringing the freedom of movement of human rights defenders. This is for instance the case in Algeria where Dr. Salah Eddine Sidhoum, who has been living clandestinely for nine year because he had condemned acts of torture, has still not received his passport back from the authorities even though he was acquitted last October from all the charges held against his.
In Morocco, thirteen human rights defenders based in Western Sahara are also waiting to be given back their passports, confiscated one year ago, in March 2003, as they were about to attendant the 59th Commission on Human Rights in Geneva.

In Tunisia, Mr. Hammad Ali Bedoui, a member of the National Council of Freedoms in Tunisia (Conseil national des libertés en Tunise - CNLT) and brother of the former president of the Tunisian League for Human Rights (Ligue tunisienne des droits de l’Homme - LTDH) was put under house arrest. Furthermore, on April 13, 2004, Mr. Partick Baudouin, lawyer and honorary president of the FIDH, was denied entry on Tunisian soil, when he was supposed to attend the press conference organised for the launching of the Annual Report of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. This was the third time, since 1996, that Mr. Baudouin is denied entry in this country.

Moreover, several human rights defenders were subjected to reprisals in their work. This was the case of Mr. Fethi Azzi in Algeria, who was fired for his job in the local government ("sous-préfecture") and then re-hired, but in a lower position, because he had given his testimony in a trial in Nîmes, France, against the "Mohammed brothers", two militiamen charges with acts of torture.

Other States use regulation measures to sanction human rights defenders’ activities. In Cameroon, the Republic’s Prosecutor of the Courts of the Diamaré district, had issued an official letter ordering all judicial police officers to arrest all human rights activists in their jurisdiction (Order n°994 of January 10, 2003). In August 2003, two activists of Movement for the Defence of Human Rights and Freedoms (MDDHL) were arrested on the basis of this official letter. In another letter (PPR/MRA/623) dated November 3, 2003, the Prosecutor confirmed the measures ordered by the first official leaf remained "applicable to all individuals liable for fraudulent acts".

V - Restrictive legislations

The Non-Governmental Organizations Act in Tanzania which imposes strict restrictions on freedoms of association and expression to NGOs, came into force on January 1, 2004. Article 35 of the NGO Act provides for penal sanctions against individuals managing NGOs without having registered at the "NGO Coordination Office" ("Bureau de coordination des ONG"). This provision could be particularly dangerous for human rights NGOs, because the law states that registration may be denied if the activities of the NGO do not serve the "general interest", a very vague concept which allows a margin for arbitrary interpretation. Moreover, this procedure is very worrying, considering the fact that the director of the "NGO Coordination Office" in charge of registration is directly designated by the President of the Republic. Finally, the provisions of this law contravene clearly with the principle of non-interference in the activities of NGOs seeing as the NGO Coordination Office can lay down "the rules of political conduct of NGOs in order to harmonise their activities with the national plan of development". This body can also "examine and inquire on any matter" in order to ensure the NGOs comply to their own statutes (article 7).

In Tunisia, the fallacious use of the 154 law and the decree of May 8, 1922, in order to block the second portion of funds granted by the European Union (EU) to the Tunisian League for Human Rights (Ligue tunisienne des droits de l’Homme - LTDH), take place as part of the continuous pressure under which the Tunisian authorities put the LTDH, as well as other independent NGOs and human rights defenders in this country. Because of this blocking of funds, the very existence of the LTDH is threatened. Moreover, on December 10, 2003, the House of Deputies (chambre des députés) voted a law on the "support of international efforts to combat terrorism and money laundering"1. This law defines as terrorism "any offence, whatever the reason, (...) that may generate terror among the population with the aim of influencing the State’s policy". Furthermore, people complying to professional secrecy, such as lawyers, who would refrain from immediately revealing information regarding terrorist acts to the authorities, would also be considered terrorists. Moreover, this law put associations and political parties under a very strict financial control, forbidding them to receive any funds higher than 30 dinars, any gift or other financial aid, namely coming from foreign entities outside the extremely restrictive framework of the law and of its implementation, which is completely controlled by the administration. This law is even more dangerous for human rights NGOs as the confusion between human rights defenders and terrorist has now become "easy". To illustrate this, one can recall the statements of the Tunisian State Representative during the last (34th) session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (October 2003), describing the Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH) as an "illegal and terrorist association".

In Sudan, despite the governmental decree which officially puts censure to an end in December 2002, the authorities have established a "red line" on the press. Any article that mentions the issues of women and child abductions, the peace process, the situation of political opponents, the forbidden party of the People’s National Congress (PNC) or the conflicts in the Darfur region, is systematically confiscated and its publication is forbidden. Messrs. Faisal el Bagir Mohamed and Murtada Algali, both members of SOAT and of the Study Center of Khartoum on Human Rights and Development (KCHRED), who had denounced these restrictions and the closure of several newspapers, were once again summoned to the offices of the National Security Agency (NSA) on October 18, 2003. They were requested to fill out documents containing details about their private lives, their political affiliation, as well as the names of their friends. Mr. El Bagir, whose activities are frequently controlled and under surveillance since 2001, had already been arrested on July 26, and October 7, 2003.

In Zimbabwe, the laws on public order and security, on access to information and the protection of private life and on associations, adopted in 2002, constitute a legal arsenal that is able to effectively repress all forms of opposition, that criminalises the legitimate enjoyment of fundamental freedoms and enables the authorities to have a political control on media and NGOs. The government has also spoken of its intention of adopting a new legislation replacing the law on associations, the Private Voluntary Organisations Act, in order to ensure, according to an official representative, that Zimbabwean NGOs "are not infiltrated by foreign agents". This future law on NGOs would enable the government to have better control on the activities of NGOs, by making the registration conditions more strict.

VI - Recommendations

Considering the numerous violations reported, the increase in attacks against human rights defenders and in the framework of the follow-up of the meeting between Ms. Jainaba Johm, Focal Point on Human Rights Defenders, and several Human Rights NGOs, in February 2004, in Banjul, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders calls

on State members of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to:

1.recognise the crucial role of human rights defenders not only in the implementation of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and other instruments on human rights, such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, but also in the prevention of conflicts, the strengthening of the Rule of law and democracy,
2.put an end to all forms of repression against human rights defenders and to comply with the provisions of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, namely article 1 and 12.2,
3.ensure that the text of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted by consensus in 1998, be widely distributed.

on the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to:

1.adopt, during its 35th session, a resolution for the renewal of the Focal Point on Human Rights Defenders taken up by Commissioner Johm and defining the conditions of her mandate (issuing urgent appeals and press releases, realizing in situ visits, drafting regular reports on the situation of human rights defenders, setting up bilateral communications and dialogues with States and exchange with human rights defenders, national and international NGOs, as well as with regional and international existing mechanisms for the protection of human rights),
2.continue and deepen the collaboration with Ms. Hina Jilani, Special representative of the UN Secretary General on Human Rights Defenders, as well as with other regional mechanisms for the protection of human rights defenders.

Read more
communique