a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were no reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
There was one report of a disappearance during the year. On August 16, two Omar Bongo University students active in the Human Rights League were reported missing. They remained missing at year’s end.
In 2017 the government reported to the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances that, despite opposition allegations of disappearances, no official complaints were filed after the 2016 elections. The committee called on the government to conduct an exhaustive inquiry into postelection violence and to update the law to comply with the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. The government National Committee of Human Rights opened an inquiry during the year that was scheduled for completion in 2021.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The constitution prohibits such practices. There were reports of torture in prisons where unidentified personnel employed torture. For example, on January 29, the attorney of Patrichi Christian Tanasa, the former director of the Gabon Oil Company, stated in a press conference that his client was tortured by three hooded men who beat and sexually molested him at the Libreville Central Prison.
Impunity was a problem in the security forces. Nevertheless, the government took some steps to identify, investigate, and prosecute officials and punish human rights abusers. In April authorities established a national hotline to report abuses by security force members.
According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, there were 12 allegations submitted during the year of sexual exploitation and abuse by Gabonese peacekeepers deployed to UN peacekeeping missions. For those allegations, the number of cases and the years the incidents reportedly occurred, or ended, are: three in 2020, one in 2019, two in 2018, two in 2016, and four in 2015. There were eight open allegations from previous years. The minister of defense and the minister of justice stated that investigations of the allegations continued and the Gabonese judicial process was being followed. The current open allegations include 17 against individuals involving: an exploitative relationship with an adult (eight cases), transactional sex an adult (four cases), solicitation of transactional sex with an adult (one case), and rape of a child (four cases); one case against two individuals for transactional sex with three adults; and two cases against individuals and groups with multiple offenses. In the first of the last two cases: one individual was involved in exploitative relationships with 17 adults and the rape of a child; two individuals were involved in rape of two unknown victims, and 15 were in exploitative relationships with 17 adults. The final case involved 19 individuals accused of rape of 27 adults, 36 children, and five unknown victims.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were harsh and potentially life threatening due to low-quality food, inadequate sanitation, lack of ventilation, gross overcrowding, and poor medical care. Conditions in jails and detention centers mirrored those in prisons. There were no specific accommodations for persons with disabilities in prisons.
Physical Conditions: Libreville’s central prison was severely overcrowded; it was built to hold 500 inmates but held approximately 4,000 inmates. There were also reports of overcrowding in other prisons.
Authorities did not provide data on the number of deaths in prisons, jails, and pretrial detention or other detention centers attributed to physical conditions or actions of staff members or other authorities.
Media reported one attempted suicide related to solitary confinement. Media reported three deaths during the year at the Libreville Central Prison attributed to inmate mistreatment. In May an inmate who attempted escape was beaten to death and another suspected of being a drug dealer was reportedly denied food and tortured. On July 24, a detainee arrested on July 16 died of an internal hemorrhage attributed to beatings.
Some prisoners and detainees were kept in solitary confinement for several months without access to exercise or use of showers and other sanitary facilities.
In some cases authorities held pretrial detainees with convicted prisoners, juveniles with adults, and men with women. Authorities separated juvenile prisoners from adults in Libreville and Franceville prisons. There were separate holding areas within prisons for men and women, but access to each area was not fully secured or restricted. Prisoners had only limited access to food, lighting, sanitation, potable water, and exercise areas. On-site nurses were available to provide basic medical care, but prison clinics often lacked sufficient medication. For serious illnesses or injury, authorities transferred prisoners to public hospitals. Management of the spread of infectious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, was inadequate.
There were no reports of prisoner-on-prisoner violence or authorities’ failure to maintain control.
Administration: Prisoners filed few complaints. Observers believed the low incidence of complaints was due to ignorance of, or lack of faith in, the process, or fear of retribution. There was no prison ombudsperson or comparable independent authority available to respond to prisoner complaints. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities significantly reduced prison visits. Prisoners were limited to contacting their families through telephone calls and written correspondence.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted human rights organizations to conduct independent monitoring of prison conditions. A prominent attorney stated that beginning in March authorities cited COVID-19 policies to deny attorneys’ access to all prisoners. Except for COVID-19 limitations, representatives of several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)–Malachie, the Lions Club, and the Voice of the Forgotten–visited and reported having access to prisons.
Improvements: On December 10, an addition to the central prison was opened that reduced overcrowding. In order to reduce further overcrowding, authorities undertook a review of inmate cases with the goal of identifying those eligible for release. The minister of justice stated improvement of prison conditions throughout the country was a government priority.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for detainees or persons arrested to challenge the legal basis and arbitrary nature of their detention in court; however, the government did not always respect these provisions.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
Although the law requires arrest warrants based on sufficient evidence and issued by a duly authorized official to make arrests, security forces in some cases disregarded these provisions. The law allows authorities to detain a suspect up to 48 hours without charge, after which it requires the suspect be charged before a judge. Police often failed to respect this time limit.
Once a person is charged, the law provides for conditional release if further investigation is required. There was a functioning bail system. Detainees did not always have prompt access to family members and a lawyer of their choice. The law requires the government to provide indigent detainees with lawyers, but this was not always possible, often because the government could not find lawyers willing to accept the terms of payment offered for taking such cases. Arrests required warrants issued by a judge or prosecutor based on evidence.
Arbitrary Arrest: On August 19, agents from the General Directorate for Investigation of the National Gendarmerie arrested the Dynamique Unitaire Trade Union Confederation leader Jean Bosco Boungoumou without a warrant. Accused of broadcasting a video jeopardizing public order, he was detained without charge for longer than the law allows and not permitted prompt access to a lawyer. On August 24, he was charged with terrorism and conspiracy. He remained in prison pending trial at year’s end.
In 2017 authorities arrested Frederic Massavala-Maboumba, the spokesperson for the opposition Coalition for the New Republic, and Deputy Secretary General Pascal Oyougou of the Heritage and Modernity Party, and charged them with “provocation and instigation of acts likely to provoke demonstrations against the authority of the State.” In June 2019 Massavala-Maboumba was released after 20 months’ imprisonment; however, Oyougou remained in detention with no trial date set at year’s end.
Pretrial Detention: Approximately two-thirds of prison inmates were held in pretrial detention that sometimes lasted up to three years. There were instances in which the length of pretrial detention exceeded the maximum sentence for the alleged crime. Prolonged pretrial detention was common due to overburdened dockets and an inefficient judicial system. The law limits pretrial detention to six months on a misdemeanor charge and one year on a felony charge, with six-month extensions if authorized by the examining magistrate. The law provides for a commission to deal with cases of abusive or excessive detention and provides for compensation to victims, but the government had yet to establish such a commission. Detainees generally lacked knowledge of their rights and the procedure for submitting complaints and may not have submitted complaints due to fear of retribution.
On April 10, the Ministry of Justice announced the release of 680 persons from the Central Prison of Libreville, including a significant number who were long-term pretrial detainees who, had they been tried and convicted, would have been released based on time served in most cases.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: The law provides for detainees or persons arrested to challenge the legal basis and arbitrary nature of their detention. The law also provides for compensation if a court rules detention unlawful. Authorities did not always respect these rights.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The law provides for an independent judiciary, but the judiciary demonstrated only partial independence and only in some cases. The judiciary was inefficient and remained susceptible to government influence. The president appoints and may dismiss judges through the Ministry of Justice, to which the judiciary is accountable. Corruption was a problem. For example, individuals charged with offenses reportedly paid bribes to influence the judicial process, avoid facing trial, or both.
Authorities generally respected court orders.
The constitution provides for the right to a fair and public trial and to legal counsel, and the judiciary generally respected these rights. Trial dates were often delayed.
Criminal defendants have the right to a presumption of innocence. They have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of charges when booked at a police station. A panel of three judges tries defendants, who enjoy the right to be present at their trial, to communicate with an attorney of choice, and to have adequate time and facilities to prepare their defense. Indigent defendants in both civil and criminal cases have the right to have an attorney provided at state expense, but the government often failed to provide attorneys because private attorneys refused to accept the terms of payment the government offered for such cases. Defendants have the right to free interpretation as necessary from the moment charged through all appeals when staff members with the required language skills are available. Defendants have the right to confront witnesses against them and to present witnesses or evidence on their own behalf. Defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Defendants have the right to appeal convictions.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
In September the prime minister stated there were no political prisoners in the country. According to one civil society group, however, there were six individuals it considered political prisoners. Of an estimated 60 protesters detained in 2017, opposition leader Pascal Oyougou remained in pretrial detention (see section 1.d.). According to multiple domestic and international news reports, opposition leader Landry Washington and former Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) deputy Bertrand Zibi were incarcerated for almost three years before they were tried. In April 2019 Washington was convicted of insulting the president and attempting to incite popular revolt. He was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment and required to pay a substantial monetary fine. He was due for release in April 2019 based on time held, but the government appealed the sentence as being too lenient, and he was held for an additional eight months. On January 7, Washington was released. In July 2019 Zibi was convicted of inciting violence and possession of a firearm and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. Zibi remained in prison at year’s end.
Prior to COVID restrictions, routine consular and NGO access was permitted. According to the minister of justice, subject to health-screening measures, access continued during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
Persons or organizations may seek civil remedies for human rights abuses through domestic courts or through administrative or other mechanisms established by law, although this seldom occurred.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
Although the constitution and law prohibit such actions, the government did not always respect these prohibitions. As part of criminal investigations, police requested and easily obtained search warrants from judges, sometimes after the fact. Security forces conducted warrantless searches for irregular immigrants and criminal suspects. Authorities reportedly monitored private telephone conversations, personal mail, and the movement of citizens.