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WORKING GROUP ON ARBITRARY DETENTION CONCLUDES VISIT TO EQUATORIAL GUINEA



Ms. Manuela Carmena Castrillo and Ms. Soledad Villagra de Biedermann, members of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention of the United Nations Human Rights Council, issued the following statement on 13 July 2007 in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea:

"Ladies and Gentlemen:

Good afternoon,

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has just concluded its visit to Equatorial Guinea, which was requested by the Working Group and accepted by the Government. The Working Group belongs to the Special Procedures of the United Nations Human Rights Council and Equatorial Guinea is the second African country the Group has visited after the Republic of South Africa in 2005. In some 15 years of existence the Working Group has also carried out fact-finding missions to Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Belarus, Bhutan, Canada, China, Ecuador, Honduras, Indonesia, Iran, Latvia, Mexico, Norway, Nepal, Nicaragua, Peru, Romania, Turkey, the United Kingdom and Viet Nam.

The delegation visiting Equatorial Guinea was composed of Working Group?s members Manuela Carmena Castrillo (Spain) and Soledad Villagra de Biedermann (Paraguay), members of the Working Group?s Secretariat, and two interpreters from Geneva.

During its five day visit the Working Group held meetings with the Prime Minister, the Vice-Prime Minister responsible for Human Rights, the Minister of National Defense and high ranking officials of the Ministry of National Security including the Director and the Deputy Secretary of National Security, the Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Director-General of Human Rights from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Director of Penitentiary Centres, the Presidents of the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court, magistrates, the Vice-President of the National Commission of Human Rights and two of its members, the Governor of the Central South Province in Evinayong, the Chiefs of Evinayong and Bata Prison, as well as Military and Police Chiefs in Bata. The Working Group further met with representatives of United Nations agencies in Malabo and with representatives of the civil society. The Group would like to express its gratitude to the United Nations Development Programme for facilitating the visit of the Group.

As is standard practice the Working Group also visited various detention facilities where persons are deprived of their liberty, including the Central Police Station and Black Beach Prison in Malabo, Evinayong Prison, Bata Prison, the detention cells of Bata Gendarmerie and Bata Police Station. The Group conducted private interviews with around 200 detainees.

Before we share our first impressions of our visit to your country with you we would like to emphasise that the mere fact that the Government of Equatorial Guinea has accepted the Working Group?s request for an invitation is already a positive sign. It conveys the message that the Government is willing to cooperate with the mechanisms of the Human Rights Council and to listen to the Working Group?s findings and recommendations. We trust that this will help the Government of Equatorial Guinea to face the challenges ahead in reforming the system of administration of justice where it is necessary to prevent instances of arbitrary detention from occurring.

According to its methods of work the Working Group considers deprivation of liberty to be arbitrary if either of the following criteria is fulfilled:

First, if there is no legal basis for detention to be found, whatsoever; or, second, if an arrest is carried out and a person is detained in order to prevent that person from exercising specific human rights entrenched in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, for example, the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the right to take part in the public affairs of the country, including the eligibility to vote freely and to be elected, or the right to freedom of religion and belief; or, third, if the violation of the right to fair trial is of such grave nature as to confer upon the imprisonment of the person concerned an arbitrary character.

Equatorial Guinea is a country in transition. Thanks to the discovery of oil the Government is now able to allocate sufficient financial resources to develop the country not only economically and socially. Development goes hand in hand with human rights promotion and protection. The Working Group notes with appreciation that the Government of Equatorial Guinea has already introduced a process of reforming the legal regime and institutions governing deprivation of liberty and of training of the authorities involved.

Black Beach Prison has been remodeled and extended. A new building at Bata Prison will be inaugurated soon and a new police station replacing the old one is currently being constructed in Bata. The old prison in Evinayong will be refurbished.

Another positive aspect the Working Group would like to raise on this occasion is the recent activity of the National Human Rights Commission, which conducted prison visits throughout the country. It has finished its first programme of visits and published its findings in a report in 2006. The conclusions contained therein are accurate, critical, candid, and important and are suitable to improve the human rights situation in prisons. The Commission has embarked on another prison tour in March 2007.

However, the initial findings of the Working Group also show that the overall situation regarding deprivation of liberty remains an issue of serious concern. A number of persons imprisoned throughout the country are political prisoners serving long sentences. Some of them have been brought from neighbouring countries to Equatorial Guinea outside any legal process. The Group is particularly worried about the practise of secret detention. It has received credible evidence about four prisoners whose custody is not acknowledged by the Government. They are Juan Ondo Abaha, Felipe Esono Ntutumu, Florencio Ela Bibang, and Antimo Edu Nchama.

Some political prisoners are not tried by civilian courts, but rather by military tribunals. These tribunals are not independent and the defendant?s legal counsel, who also belongs to the military branch, often does not act in their defense. The accused are convicted in summary trials and there is no right to appeal the sentence.

Excessive interpretation of police powers leads to detention without legal basis, including arrests ordered by superior authorities, apprehensions pertaining to purely civil disputes or used as punishments for acts that are not illegal, or arrests invoking necessity of protection of the inmate. Authorities ordering detention in the absence of legal grounds enjoy impunity. Women are detained together with men and juveniles are held together with adults.

In addition, the Working Group notes that the rule according to which an arrested person must be brought before a judge to decide on the continuation of detention or release no later than 72 hours after the arrest is virtually not adhered to. In many cases it is only the Secretary of the court who takes the decision when the person concerned is finally produced before the magistrate, often after months of detention have passed without charges. This practise does not only violate the pertinent provisions of binding international human rights instruments Equatorial Guinea has ratified, but also the Constitution of the country and its habeas corpus law.

Detainees at the police stations do not have the right to access to a lawyer. Preparing for a proper defense before the trial is almost impossible since defendants are allowed to meet with their lawyers only shortly before their day in court. The situation is particularly grave for those who cannot afford the assistance of a legal counsel.

Many of the detainees the Working Group has met at police stations have denounced ill-treatment in the hours following their arrest and thereafter. Such acts appear to remain largely unpunished. The Working Group has seen prisoners who are hand- or even leg-cuffed, at times for several years, or are chained to their bed during the night. There is no complaint procedure in place for the prisoners to challenge punitive decisions taken by the military, which is running the prisons.

A comprehensive system of registration and documentation of persons kept in detention facilities seems to be inexistent, although detention records are of crucial importance to prevent disappearances or other kinds of human rights abuses.

Illegal immigrants who are in large numbers detained at Malabo Police Station are held in custody for a potentially indefinite period of time. The Government does not provide the necessary facilities, including a sufficient amount of food and water, so that the detainees have to rely on occasional support from the outside.

These are, Ladies and Gentlemen, our first impressions at the conclusion of our visit. "