The country's human rights record remained poor, although there were improvements in several areas. The following human rights problems were reported: limited ability of citizens to change their government; use of excessive force, including torture, on prisoners and detainees; harsh prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; an inefficient judiciary susceptible to government influence; restrictions on the right to privacy; restrictions on freedom of speech, press, association, and movement; harassment of refugees by security forces; widespread government corruption; violence and societal discrimination against women, persons with HIV/AIDS, and noncitizen Africans; trafficking in persons, particularly children; and forced labor and child labor.
RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom From:
a. Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life
There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
Ritualistic killings occurred. In April the body of three-year- old Richepin Eyogo Edzang, bearing signs of ritual mutilations, was found near his home. One of the three perpetrators of the crime was killed by the boy's neighbors; the other two were arrested but not prosecuted. Authorities condemned the killing but urged the population not to take justice into its own hands.
No action was taken against members of a private security force who were responsible for the 2006 killing of a Nigerian market vendor.
There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the constitution and law prohibit such practices, security forces sometimes beat prisoners and detainees to extract confessions. For example, in April police in Mouanda detained a Cameroonian woman on charges of robbery and beat her so severely that she was hospitalized. It was later discovered she was innocent. The authorities reportedly took no action against the police involved in the beatings.
There were reports of police officers beating, robbing, and raping prostitutes.
Unconfirmed reports from the African immigrant community asserted that police and soldiers occasionally beat noncitizen Africans during operations to round up and deport illegal immigrants. Refugees continued to complain of harassment and extortion by security forces.
There were isolated reports that practitioners of certain indigenous religions inflicted bodily harm and sometimes death on other persons. In April several women allegedly sexually assaulted a 14-year-old boy to collect bodily fluids and hair for apparent ritualistic purposes.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prisons were overcrowded, and conditions were harsh. Food, sanitation, and ventilation were poor, and medical care was almost nonexistent, although nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and private citizens occasionally made contributions to augment prisoners' food rations. Juveniles were held with adults, and pretrial detainees were held with convicted prisoners.
There were no known visits by human rights monitors to prisons; however, there also were no reports that the government impeded such visits.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, but the government did not always observe these prohibitions.
Role of the Police and Security Apparatus
The national police, under the Ministry of the Interior, and the gendarmerie, under the Ministry of Defense, were responsible for domestic law enforcement and public security; the gendarmerie was also responsible for manning checkpoints. Elements of the armed forces and the Republican Guard, a heavily armed unit that protects the president, sometimes performed internal security functions. The police were inefficient, and corruption was a serious problem. Security forces often sought bribes at checkpoints to supplement their salaries. The inspector general's office was responsible for investigating police abuse; however, impunity was a problem.
In July a police officer was arrested for employing young girls in a bar for prostitution. However, after paying unspecified fines, he was released, even though the maximum penalty for his offense usually entails two to five years in prison, in addition to a fine of $1,111 to $2,222 (500,000 to one million CFA francs).
Arrest and Detention
The law requires arrest warrants based on sufficient evidence and issued by a duly authorized official; however, security forces frequently disregarded this provision. The law provides up to 48 hours for initial detention, during which police must charge a detainee before a judge, but police rarely respected this timetable. Charges often were not filed expeditiously, and persons were detained arbitrarily, sometimes for long periods. Bail could be set after charges had been announced if further investigation was required. Detainees were allowed prompt access to a lawyer and, if indigent, to one provided by the state.
Members of the security forces continued to detain individuals at roadblocks under the guise of checking vehicle registration and identity papers. Security forces frequently used such operations to extort money.
Pretrial detention, limited to six months for a misdemeanor and one year for a felony charge, may be extended for six months by the examining magistrate. Pretrial detainees have the right of free access to their attorneys, and this right was generally respected. Detainees also have the right to an expeditious trial, but overburdened dockets resulted in prolonged pretrial detention. In 2006 approximately 40 percent of persons in custody were pretrial detainees, and authorities had not taken steps to correct this issue.
A February 2006 census of Libreville's prison population, conducted by the country's justice ministry, revealed that 277 of 1,100 prisoners in pretrial detention had been held more than two years. Also in 2006 journalists uncovered 16 cases of prisoners held more than five years without trial, including one who had been in prison for 11 years because the magistrate lost his file. Following public disclosure of the situation, the lower court in Libreville reviewed the cases of long-stay detainees and released 40 prisoners. Most of them had been held for as long as their potential terms would have been if they had been tried and convicted.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Although the law provides for an independent judiciary, the judiciary was inefficient and remained susceptible to government influence. The president appoints and can dismiss judges through the Ministry of Justice, to which the judiciary is responsible. Corruption was a problem.
The judicial system includes regular courts, a military tribunal, and a civilian High Court of Justice. The regular court system includes trial courts, appellate courts, and the Supreme Court. The Constitutional Court is a separate body charged with examining constitutional questions, including the certification of elections. The High Court of Justice is constituted by the government as required to consider matters of security.
Systemic resource and personnel shortages in the judiciary often contributed to prolonged pretrial detention.
The constitution provides the right to a public trial and to legal counsel, and the government generally respected these rights. Nevertheless, a judge may deliver an immediate verdict of guilty at the initial hearing in a state security trial if the government presents sufficient evidence. Defendants are presumed innocent and have the right to be present, to confront witnesses against them, to present witnesses or evidence on their behalf, and to appeal; the government generally respected these rights.
Minor disputes may be taken to a local chief, particularly in rural areas, but the government did not always recognize such decisions.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
Unlike in the previous year, there were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
There was an independent civil judiciary, but it was susceptible to government influence and corruption. Corruption was also a problem in the enforcement of domestic court orders. Administrative remedies were not generally available.
f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution and law prohibit such actions; however, the government did not respect these prohibitions in practice. As part of criminal investigations, police may request search warrants from judges, which they obtained easily, sometimes after the fact.
Security forces conducted warrantless searches for illegal immigrants and criminals, using street stops and identity checks.
Authorities reportedly routinely monitored private telephone conversations, personal mail, and the movement of citizens.
Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and of the press; however, the government generally did not respect these rights in practice. Few citizens criticized the government for fear of losing their jobs, and only a few opposition legislators in the National Assembly openly criticized the government. Local journalists generally practiced self-censorship.
The only daily newspaper was the government‑affiliated L'Union. Approximately nine privately owned weekly or monthly newspapers represented independent views and those of various political parties, but most appeared irregularly due to financial constraints, or in some cases, government suspension of their publication licenses. All newspapers, including L'Union, criticized the government and political leaders of all parties, but not the president. There is a fine line between what the government considers acceptable and unacceptable criticism. Most journalists understand these limits and publish accordingly but occasionally cross the line as in the case of the weekly independent newspaper L'espoir.
Foreign newspapers and magazines were widely available.
The government owned and operated two radio stations that broadcast throughout the country. Much of their news coverage concerned the activities of government officials, although editorials sometimes criticized specific government policies or ministers. Seven privately owned radio stations were operating at year's end; most were apolitical. International radio stations broadcast locally.
The government owned and operated two television stations. Four privately owned television stations transmitted 24 hours per day. Satellite television reception was available.
The National Communication Council (CNC) suspended several newspapers that criticized the government. For example, "L'espoir" was suspended for offending the state when it ran an article entitled "The Last Days of Bongo." The director of the newspaper, also a government official, was arrested for violating a law that prohibits civil servants from controlling a newspaper. He was sentenced to six months' imprisonment but was released a month later after going on a hunger strike; he was not allowed to leave the country.
Another newspaper, the Gri-Gri International, published an article critical of Bongo's management of a mining contract and was suspended indefinitely by the CNC on grounds that the newspaper was not authorized to sell in the country as it was licensed in France. The law, however, was not enforced until the newspaper published the aforementioned article.
The law stipulates that penalties for libel and other offenses include a one- to three-month publishing suspension for a first offense and a three- to six-month suspension for repeat offenses. Editors and authors of libelous articles can be jailed for two to six months and fined $1,111 to $11,111 (500,000 to five million CFA francs). Libel can be either a criminal offense or a civil matter. The law authorizes the government to initiate criminal libel prosecution against persons for libeling elected government officials; it also authorizes the state to criminalize civil libel suits.
The CNC suspended the newspaper "La Nation" for one month on charges of libel after it published an article critical of the minister of culture.
There were no government restrictions on access to the Internet or reports that the government monitored e-mail or Internet chat rooms. Individuals and groups could engage in the peaceful expression of views via the Internet, including by e-mail. Approximately 7 percent of the population used the Internet. This number would likely increase since the leading provider reduced connection fees by 50 percent in August.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
Freedom of Assembly
The constitution and law provide for freedom of assembly, and the government generally respected this right. The law requires that groups obtain permits for public gatherings in advance.
Freedom of Association
The constitution and law provide for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right.
c. Freedom of Religion
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the government generally respected this right.
The Ministry of Interior maintained an official registry of religious groups and refused to register approximately 10 small indigenous groups. Nevertheless, in practice the government allows members of these groups to assemble, practice their religion, and to proselytize.
In recent years, some Protestant denominations have alleged that the government television station accorded free broadcast time to the Catholic Church but not to minority religious groups. Others alleged that the armed forces favored Roman Catholics and Muslims in hiring and promotion.
Societal Abuses and Discrimination
There was no significant Jewish community in the country, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.
For a more detailed discussion, see the 2007 International Religious Freedom Report.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
Although the constitution and law provide for freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, the government frequently restricted these rights in practice. There were no legally mandated restrictions on internal movement, but police and gendarmes continued to stop travelers frequently to check identity, residence, registration documents, or to demand bribes. Members of the security forces harassed expatriate Africans working legally as merchants, service sector employees, and manual laborers. Some members of the security forces extorted bribes with threats of confiscation of residency documents or imprisonment. Residency permits cost $222 (100,000 CFA francs) per year, and first‑time applicants were required to provide the cost of a one‑way air ticket to their country of origin. In principle, but usually not in practice, the government refunded the cost of the air ticket when the individual departed the country permanently.
There were reports that, without explanation, authorities denied passport applications for travel abroad. There also were reports of unreasonable delays in obtaining passports, despite a government commitment to process passport applications within three days. The government intermittently enforced a regulation requiring married women to obtain their husbands' permission to travel abroad.
The law prohibits forced exile, and the government did not use it.
Protection of Refugees
The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status in accordance with the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. In practice the government generally provided protection against refoulement, the return of persons to a country where there is reason to believe they feared persecution. The government granted refugee status or asylum and cooperated with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees and asylum seekers. However, refugees complained about widespread harassment, extortion, and detentions by security forces.
To reduce mistreatment of refugees, the government started replacing UNHCR-issued identity cards with those issued by the government. By year's end, only refugees in one region of the country had been issued new cards. However, the cards, in conjunction with a UNHCR-led information campaign, helped reduce discrimination against refugees.
Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government
The constitution and law provide citizens with the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens exercised this right in practice through periodic elections.
Elections and Political Participation
In December 2006 elections were held to fill the 120 seats of the National Assembly. President Bongo's party, the PDG, and other parties in the ruling coalition won the majority of the seats. Several seats were contested and nullified by the Constitutional Court; however, in the runoff elections, the PDG still held the majority with 83 seats. Other parties allied with the PDG won 19 seats. Opposition parties won 10 seats, while the remaining seats went to independents or unaligned parties.
In 2005 President Bongo Ondimba was reelected for another seven‑year term in an election marred by irregularities.
The government was dominated by a strong presidency. When the legislature is not in session the president can veto legislation, dissolve the national legislature, call new elections, and issue decrees that have the force of law. The legislature generally approved legislation presented to it by the president. The president appoints ministers of government and heads of parastatals.
A single party, the PDG, has remained in power since its creation by President Bongo in 1968.
There were 15 women in the 120-member National Assembly and 13 women in the 49-member cabinet.
Members of all major ethnic groups continued to occupy prominent government positions; however, members of the president's Bateke ethnic group and other southerners held a disproportionately large number of key positions in the security forces. The chief of general staff, the minister of defense, and the chief of the republican guard were from the same region or ethnic group as the president.
Indigenous Pygmies rarely participated in the political process, and the government made only limited efforts to include them.
Government Corruption and Transparency
Official corruption was widespread, and there was extensive media coverage of police abuses, particularly at checkpoints; however, the Anticorruption Commission issued no reports and took no action against corrupt officials during the year.
The Anticorruption Commission required civil servants to disclose their financial assets before assuming office; however, this requirement was not always followed in practice.
The World Bank's Worldwide Governance Indicators reflected that corruption was a severe problem. The country joined the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative process and submitted required reports in both 2006 and 2007.
The law does not provide for public access to government information, and the government did not allow such access in practice.
Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
A few local human rights NGOs and activists operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings. Government officials took no actions on their recommendations.
Section 5 Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Although the constitution and law prohibit discrimination based on national origin, race, gender, or opinion, the government did not enforce these provisions uniformly.
Rape is against the law and carries a penalty of between five and 10 years' imprisonment; however, rape cases were seldom prosecuted and often were perpetrated by law enforcement officials on female noncitizens and prostitutes. The problem was widespread and reportedly increased from the previous year. Only limited medical and legal assistance for rape victims was available.
The law prohibits domestic violence; however, it was believed to be common, especially in rural areas. Police rarely intervened in such incidents, and women virtually never filed complaints with civil authorities.
Although illegal, female genital mutilation (FGM) was believed to occur among the resident population of noncitizen Africans; however, there were no specific reports of such practices during the year.
Although the law prohibits prostitution, it was a problem. There were reports of police officers beating, robbing, and raping prostitutes.
There is no law that prohibits sexual harassment, and it was a problem. The government and NGOs reported cases of female domestic workers (often victims of child trafficking) who were sexually molested by employers.
The law provides that women have rights to equal access in education, business, and investment, but women continued to face considerable societal and legal discrimination, especially in rural areas. While poor women frequently suffered discrimination, women among the educated urban population were treated more equally. Women owned businesses and property, participated in politics, and worked throughout the government and in the private sector.
By law, couples must stipulate at the time of marriage whether they intend to adhere to a monogamous or a polygynous relationship; polygynous marriages were more common. For monogamous married couples, a common property law provides for the equal distribution of assets after divorce. In a polygynous marriage, a husband is obligated to give all wives the same level of financial support, although he may marry additional wives without permission from his existing wives. Wives who leave polygynous husbands receive a one‑time payment.
In inheritance cases, the husband's family must issue a written authorization before his widow can inherit property. Common law marriage, which was accepted socially and practiced widely, afforded women no property rights.
Regulation requires that a woman obtain her husband's permission to travel abroad; however, this requirement was not enforced consistently.
Citizenship is not conferred automatically through birth on Gabonese soil. Citizenship was rarely conferred on children born to two non-Gabonese parents and these children were not able to receive the full benefits normally conferred to citizens. All births are normally registered.
The government publicly expressed its commitment to youth, provided 4,000 academic scholarships during the year, and used oil revenues to build schools, pay teacher salaries, and promote education, including in rural areas. However, there were numerous reports of shortages of classrooms and teachers in public schools. Education is compulsory until age 16 and was generally available through sixth grade. Approximately 78 percent of primary school-age children, and about half of secondary school‑age children, attended school. Secondary school attendance rates for immigrant children were lower, although public schools accepted immigrant children and the government encouraged them to attend. The government provided a family allowance to the parents of schoolchildren; however, students were required to pay for books, uniforms, and other school supplies, which precluded numerous children from attending school. The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization estimated that 80 percent of women and 88 percent of men were literate. Boys and girls had equal attendance rates in primary school, but more boys than girls were enrolled in secondary school.
Boys and girls had equal access to medical care.
There was little evidence of physical abuse of children, although there were occasional reports that family members sexually abused girls who had passed puberty. When such reports surfaced, the accused abusers were arrested and tried.
FGM was believed to occur among the resident population of noncitizen Africans.
Child marriage was a problem and there was no government effort to combat the practice.
Trafficking in children and child labor were problems.
Concerns about the problems faced by the large community of children of noncitizen Africans persisted. Some were victims of child trafficking and abuses.
Trafficking in Persons
The law prohibits trafficking in persons; however, there were reports that persons, particularly women and children, were trafficked to the country.
The police and an interministerial committee composed of representatives from the labor, justice, foreign affairs, and family ministries, were responsible for combating trafficking. The government also cooperated with the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the International Labor Organization.
Children (especially girls), primarily from Benin and Togo, worked as domestic servants or in the informal commercial sector. Boys were trafficked for street hawking and forced labor in small workshops. Nigerian children, also victims of trafficking, worked in the informal commercial sector as mechanics. Trafficked children generally worked long hours, were subjected to physical abuse, received inadequate food, and received no wages or schooling. No statistics were available on the number of trafficking victims in the country, but estimates ranged from 3,000 to 25,000 per year.
There continued to be unconfirmed reports that some government officials employed trafficked foreign children as domestic workers, and that individual police and immigration officers were involved in facilitating child trafficking.
The law provides for prison sentences for traffickers of five to 15 years' imprisonment and fines from $22,222 to $44,444 (10 million to 20 million CFA francs).
The government demonstrated weak antitrafficking law enforcement efforts and did not report any trafficking convictions during the year.
There were reports that frustration over lack of prosecutorial action led police to conduct fewer raids this year.
Government agencies, in cooperation with UNICEF, provided care for victims, in some cases through NGOs.
UNICEF and the government sponsored a toll-free assistance hotline for child trafficking victims that provided 24-hour response assistance and arranged free transport to a victims' shelter. A government-funded reception center offered protection for trafficking victims, including food, education, medical care, and repatriation assistance. A second center, run by Carmelite nuns, provided similar services for older girls and young women.
Persons with Disabilities
There are no laws that prohibit discrimination against persons with disabilities or provide for access to buildings or services; however, there were no reports of official discrimination against persons with disabilities. There was some societal discrimination against persons with disabilities, and employment opportunities and treatment facilities were limited.
The Baka (Pygmies) are the earliest known inhabitants of the country. Small numbers of Pygmies continued to live in large tracts of rain forest in the northeast. Most Pygmies, however, were relocated to communities along the major roads during the late colonial and early post-independence period, together with other residents of remote communities. The law grants them the same civil rights as other citizens, but Pygmies remained largely outside of formal authority, keeping their own traditions, independent communities, and local decision‑making structures. Pygmies suffered societal discrimination, often lived in extreme poverty, and did not have easy access to public services. Their Bantu neighbors often exploited their labor, paying much less than minimum wage. Despite their equal status under the law, Pygmies generally felt they had little recourse if mistreated by Bantu. There were no specific government programs or policies to assist Pygmies.
Other Societal Abuses and Discrimination
There was considerable discrimination against women and persons with HIV/AIDS. One local NGO worked closely with the Minister of Health to combat both the associated stigma and the spread of the disease. The same organization also worked to combat the stigma associated with homosexuality but did not receive any assistance from the government for these activities.
Section 6 Worker Rights
a. The Right of Association
The law places no restrictions on the right of association and recognizes the right of citizens to form trade and labor unions; workers exercised this right in practice. The small private sector workforce was generally unionized. Unions must register with the government to be recognized officially, and registration was granted routinely.
Discrimination on the basis of union membership is illegal. Employers who are found guilty by civil courts of having engaged in such discrimination may be required to compensate employees. Trade unions in both the public and private sectors were often discriminated against. Their demands and/or requests for negotiations were often ignored or denied.
b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively
The law allows unions to conduct their activities without government interference, and the government protected this right. The law provides for collective bargaining by industry, not by firm, and collectively bargained agreements set wages for whole industries. Labor and management met to negotiate differences, with observers from the Ministry of Labor. Agreements negotiated by unions also applied to nonunion workers.
The law provides workers the right to strike; however, they may do so only after eight days advance notification and also only after arbitration fails. Public sector employees' right to strike is limited if a strike could jeopardize public safety. The law prohibits government action against individual strikers who abide by the notification and arbitration provisions.
There are no export processing zones.
c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor; however, there were reports that such practices occurred, including by children.
Some Pygmies reportedly were employed under conditions tantamount to slavery and without effective recourse to the judicial system.
d. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
Although children below the age of 16 may not work without the express consent of the ministries of labor, education, and public health, child labor was a serious problem. The law stipulates fines and prison sentences for violations of the minimum age for work. The ministries rigorously enforced this law in urban areas with respect to citizen children, and few citizens under the age of 18 worked in the formal wage sector; however, child labor occurred in rural areas, where the law was seldom enforced.
An unknown number of children‑‑primarily foreign‑‑worked in marketplaces or performed domestic duties; many of these children were reportedly the victims of child trafficking. Such children generally did not attend school, received only limited medical attention, and often were exploited by employers or foster families. Laws forbidding child labor theoretically extended protection to these children, but abuses often were not reported.
The constitution and labor code protect children against exploitation. The Ministry of Justice is responsible for implementing and enforcing child labor laws and regulations. Inspectors from the Ministry of Labor are responsible for receiving, investigating, and addressing child labor complaints. However, violations were not systematically addressed because the inspection force was inadequate, and complaints were not investigated routinely. The government viewed child labor and child trafficking as closely linked; the only available survey of children in the labor force found that 97 percent were noncitizens.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
In September 2006 the president announced an increase in the monthly minimum wage from $98 to $178(44,000 to 80,000 CFA francs); government workers received an additional monthly allowance of $44 (20,000 CFA francs) per child. Government workers also received transportation, housing, and family benefits. The law does not mandate housing or family benefits for private sector workers. The minimum wage did not provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family.
The labor code governs working conditions and benefits for all formal sectors and theoretically provides a broad range of protection to workers; however, the government sometimes did not respect these protections. According to the law, representatives of labor, management, and the government are required to meet annually to examine economic and labor conditions and to recommend a minimum wage rate to the president, who then issues an annual decree. This procedure has not been followed since 1994, in part because the government was following a policy of wage austerity recommended by international financial institutions.
The labor code stipulates a 40‑hour workweek with a minimum rest period of 48 consecutive hours. Employers must compensate workers for overtime work. Companies in the formal sector generally paid competitive wages and granted the fringe benefits required by law, including maternity leave and six weeks annual paid vacation.
The Ministry of Health established occupational health and safety standards but did not enforce or regulate them. The application of labor standards varied from company to company and between industries. In the formal sector, workers may remove themselves from dangerous work situations without fear of retribution.
The government reportedly did not enforce labor code provisions in sectors where the majority of the labor force was foreign. Foreign workers, both documented and undocumented, were obliged to work under substandard conditions; were dismissed without notice or recourse; or were mistreated physically, especially in the case of illegal immigrants. Employers frequently paid noncitizens less and required them to work longer hours, often hiring them on a short‑term, casual basis to avoid paying taxes, social security contributions, and other benefits.