FIDH Vice-President arrested and expelled from Djibouti

Press release
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FIDH / Alexis Deswaef*

Paris, 14 March 2023. After 48 hours of mission in Djibouti, complicated by a tailing of the Djibouti Security and Documentation Service, Alexis Deswaef, FIDH Vice-President, was arrested at his hotel before being taken to the airport and placed on a plane to the capital of Ethiopia. The day before, an FIDH programme officer for Africa had been brutally turned away by the Djibouti authorities. Both were in possession of valid visas. These incidents demonstrate the scant regard given to human rights by the authorities, but also the authoritarianism of a country that hosts the military bases of the world’s major powers.

On Sunday 12 March, at 11pm local time, a programme officer on mission for the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), presented herself at the border control at Djibouti airport with a valid visa. Without any reason given, police officers grabbed her by the arms and forced her to board a plane bound for Istanbul.

The day before, on Saturday 11 March, Alexis Deswaef, FIDH Vice-President and also a member of the mission in possession of a valid visa, had entered the country without any problem and had started the mission. On Monday 13 March, at around 5pm in Djibouti, the hotel reception contacted him: a police officer wanted to see him. Four plainclothes policemen finally went up to his room and told him to follow them to the airport. He was then put on the first plane to Addis Ababa, without any justification or prior notice being given to him. His notes, phone and SIM cards were confiscated by the Djibouti authorities before he was forced to leave the country.

Between Sunday and Monday, Mr. Deswaef was able to work with Zakaria Abdillahi, former President of the Ligue djiboutienne des droits humains (LDDH), the FIDH member organisation in Djibouti. He also met with other civil society representatives, trade unions, opposition leaders, several Western chancelleries and UN representatives.

An unmarked car with a man in law enforcement uniform and another in civilian clothes followed them for most of their travels.

"Human rights defenders are living in a worrying situation," recalls Zakaria Abdillahi, former president of LDDH, "Arrest, violence committed by the security forces, arbitrary detentions, notorious surveillance. The government thus seeks to perpetuate a climate of terror in the country, conducive to the seizure of power. Djibouti locks up its citizens."

"The lack of regard for human rights and the authoritarian drift of the Djiboutian state is alerting," says Alexis Deswaef, FIDH vice-president and honorary president of the Ligue des Droits Humains en Belgique (LDH), "Our expulsion raises an essential question: what do they have to hide to make them so afraid of an NGO mission? There will be no respite until we have answers."

"The treatment of my colleagues is unacceptable, but not surprising," said Alice Mogwe, President of the FIDH, "What is even more unacceptable is the passivity of the European countries, the United States and China, whom benefit from military installations on Djibouti soil, without worrying about the fate of the local population. Let us not resign ourselves to abandoning the people of Djibouti to this lockdown smothering civil society".

An essential mission in a country adrift

The mission’s objective was to assess the situation of human rights defenders in the country. It served also to show solidarity of FIDH in their denouncing of the numerous human rights violations committed by the authorities.

This mission was organised in a particularly tense context. The legislative elections of 24 February 2023, held in general indifference and without the opposition, are evidence of the absence of democratic plurality and the political muzzling of civil society. This situation has persisted since President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh came to power over 24 years ago.

Since 2006, the date of the last FIDH mission to Djibouti, the LDDH and FIDH have constantly denounced the regime’s repression of human rights defenders, journalists and members of the opposition, who are constantly harassed by the government with complete impunity.

FIDH and LDDH call on the international community to lift the silence on human rights in Djibouti and to denounce the authoritarian excesses of the government, particularly against human rights activists. The organisations also call on the Djibouti authorities to provide explanations for these two incidents.

*Photo of Zakaria Abdillahi and Alexis Deswaef taken by the latter on 13 March in his hotel room while police officers were at the door. He was later expelled.

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