a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There was one report the government or its agents committed an unlawful killing. The Judicial Police, under the Ministry of Justice, are responsible for investigating any abuses or unlawful acts by government security forces. During protests against COVID-19 restrictions in February, credible reports indicate Libreville security forces shot and killed two men.
According to a local nongovernmental organization (NGO), an individual accused of drug trafficking inside the Libreville Central Prison was tortured and beaten with electric cable. He died on October 8.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
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’s National Committee of Human Rights opened an inquiry in 2020 that was completed during the year, but a report was not released.
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 (see section 1.a.). A number of high-profile prisoners were kept in solitary confinement for extended periods.
The United Nations on September 15 ordered the withdrawal of the country’s 450-strong peacekeeping contingent from the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Meeting in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) regarding sexual abuse allegations. The United Nations stated it had received during the year a total of 33 allegations of sexual abuse or sexual exploitation against troops from the country, which were part of an international peacekeeping force numbering thousands in the Central African Republic (CAR). The country’s authorities opened an investigation following the UN decision to withdraw the country’s contingent. At year’s end the United Nations had not posted final details regarding the investigation to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal; as a result, the reporting in the online portal may not represent the full scale and scope of the country’s peacekeeper abuses in CAR.
According to the portal, prior to the most recent revelations there were seven additional allegations submitted during the year of sexual exploitation and abuse by the country’s peacekeepers deployed to MINUSCA. Six of these involved exploitative relationships with adults, and the seventh involved child rape. As of September 30, there were 22 pending investigations into allegations from the peacekeeping mission in the CAR.
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 2020 authorities established a national hotline to report abuses by security force members.
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.
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. A local NGO reported three deaths in Libreville Central Prison during the year due to medical illnesses. Media reported two deaths during the year at the Port-Gentil and Mouila Central Prisons attributed to poor medical care.
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. There were no specific accommodations for persons with disabilities in prisons. 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 or tuberculosis, was inadequate.
In March there was an incursion into Mouila Central Prison by gendarmes seeking to liberate one of their colleagues whom they believed was falsely charged.
Administration: There was no prison ombudsperson or comparable independent authority available to respond to prisoner complaints. 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.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities significantly reduced prison visits, with visitors required to show proof of negative COVID-19 tests within the preceding 48 hours. Otherwise, prisoners were limited to contacting their families through telephone calls and written correspondence. An attorney stated that from March 2020 authorities cited COVID-19 policies to deny attorneys’ access to all prisoners, although during the year authorities began allowing access to prisoners by attorneys, family, NGOs, and consular officers with the presentation of a negative COVID-19 test.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted human rights organizations to conduct independent monitoring of prison conditions. Except for COVID-19 limitations, representatives of several NGOs, including Malachie, the Sylvia Bongo Foundation, and the Voice of the Forgotten, visited prisons.
Improvements: To reduce further overcrowding, authorities undertook a review of inmate cases with the goal of identifying those eligible for release. Following the review, on June 10, the Ministry of Justice announced the release of 360 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.
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: In August 2020 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. Later in August 2020, prosecutors charged him with terrorism and conspiracy. He remained in prison pending trial at year’s end.
In 2017 authorities arrested Deputy Secretary General Pascal Oyougou of the Heritage and Modernity Party and charged him with “provocation and instigation of acts likely to provoke demonstrations against the authority of the State.” On June 15, authorities released Oyougou after 41 months in detention without a trial.
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 (see also section 1.c., Prison and Detention Center Conditions, Improvements). 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.
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 NGO Freedom House alleged the executive branch exercised firm control over the judiciary. The judiciary was inefficient. 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
On August 18, the minister of justice stated there were no political prisoners in the country. According to one civil society group, however, they considered some individuals as political prisoners. Of an estimated 60 protesters detained in 2017, opposition leader Pascal Oyougou spent 41 months in pretrial detention (see section 1.d.). According to multiple domestic and international news reports, former Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) deputy Bertrand Zibi Abeghe was arrested following violence after the 2016 presidential elections as a political reprisal. In 2019 Zibi was convicted of inciting violence and possession of a firearm and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. The Court of Appeals upheld his conviction in April, and Zibi remained in prison at year’s end. Many observers considered the charges and conviction were politically directed and that the evidence was fabricated.
Prior to COVID-19 restrictions, routine consular and NGO access was permitted to political prisoners. Visitors regained access during the year after showing proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test.
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.