New York — Authorities in Equatorial Guinea should cease all harassment of a jailed political opponent and those close to him, Human Rights Watch, Physicians for Human Rights and EG Justice said today.
Dr. Wenceslao Mansogo Alo, a medical doctor, human rights defender and leading member of the political opposition who was convicted and sentenced on May 7, 2012, to three years in prison following a politically motivated trial, was transferred on May 18 without explanation to a filthy, isolated cell in Bata central prison. The conditions of his confinement are now significantly worse than where he had previously been held with other prisoners, according to information Human Rights Watch obtained. In addition, one of Mansogo's lawyers, Ponciano Mbomio Nvó, was suspended from legal practice for two years for criticizing the government in closing arguments in the case.
"Dr. Mansogo doesn't deserve to be imprisoned at all and now governmental authorities are making matters worse by holding him in a dungeon-like cell," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director of Human Rights Watch. "They should stop harassing him and ensure that he is treated in accordance with basic human rights standards."
The US State Department human rights report on Equatorial Guinea, released on May 24, noted that although the government had renovated the Bata prison and two others, conditions "remained inadequate." Among other problems, it noted that "holding cells were overcrowded and dirty, and prisoners and detainees rarely had access to medical care, exercise, or mattresses. Provisions for sanitation, ventilation, lighting, and access to potable water were inadequate. Diseases, including malaria and HIV/AIDS, were serious problems."
The State Department report covers events of 2011 and does not mention Mansogo's case, which began with his arrest on February 9, 2012.
Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, EG Justice, Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights have condemned Mansogo's politically motivated arrest and conviction. All have called for his release. The governments of Spain and the United States have also issued statements of concern in the case and called for his rights to be fully respected. Mansogo's lawyers have until May 28 to file a notice of their intent to appeal his conviction and sentence.
"Mansogo's unfair conviction is an attack not only on one human rights defender, but on all the patients he serves," said Hans Hogrefe, Washington director of Physicians for Human Rights. "The harassment of medical professionals is amplified by the harm it exacts on entire communities."
Human Rights Watch, Physicians for Human Rights and EG Justice expressed concern about the retaliation against Mbomio. Following on an earlier threat, on April 27 the lawyer's association of Equatorial Guinea issued a decision suspending his license to practice law. The order was officially communicated to him on May 21.
The decision found that Mbomio had disregarded the association's norms when he issued "opinions, judgments and criticisms of the government and its institutions" in closing arguments in the Mansogo case. It also accused Mbomio of wanting to "impose the law of the jungle" for failing to appear at a hearing on the matter and instead sending a written response critical of the leadership of the lawyer's association, which consists of senior judges appointed by the country's president.
Equatorial Guinea's judiciary lacks independence. Lawyers assigned to sensitive cases concerning human rights or national security have reported that judges regularly tell them that judges need to consult with the office of the president regarding their decisions.
Acquittals and releases on appeal are uncommon, particularly in cases involving critics of the government. In the past, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has been known to grant amnesties to prisoners. For example, in June 2011 he released 22 political prisoners on his 69th birthday. President Obiang, who is now the world's longest-serving head of state and recently appointed his controversial eldest son to one of two vice president posts, turns 70 on June 5. The constitution, revised following a referendum in November 2011, only contemplates a single post for vice president.
Mbomio has filed a complaint with the International Association of Lawyers, seeking reversal of the suspension order by Equatorial Guinea's lawyers association. Although he hopes to continue practicing law in Equatorial Guinea until the matter is resolved, it remains unclear if he will be allowed to do so. In 2008, Mbomio was suspended for one year under similar circumstances.
"Ponciano Mbomio is entitled to free speech, both inside and outside the courtroom," said Joseph Kraus, program and development director at EG Justice, a human rights group in the United States founded by an exile from Equatorial Guinea. "The decision to punish him for his vigorous defense of Dr. Mansogo at the trial is inconsistent with Equatorial Guinea's own laws, as well as international standards, and should be reversed without delay so he can carry on his important work."
Mansogo's Conditions of Detention
Mansogo's new cell is isolated and on the second floor, away from other prisoners, who are housed on the first floor. Whereas prisoners on the first floor are permitted to go out to a patio during the day and their cells are not locked, access to the second floor is behind a locked door that is opened by prison authorities twice a day to allow entry to Mansogo's wife, who brings him food. Other prisoners housed on the second floor are in unlocked cells and are permitted to spend time in a shared hallway. Mansogo, however, is kept in a locked prison cell. He has no contact with other prisoners and is not permitted to leave the cell for fresh air or exercise.
His prison cell, approximately 4 meters by 3 meters, has only a tiny window insufficient to allow natural light or adequate ventilation from the extreme tropical heat. The conditions of hygiene are extremely poor, particularly the rudimentary toilet facilities. Even after efforts by Mansogo to clean the cell, it remains filthy and foul-smelling, according to information obtained by Human Rights Watch.
One of Mansogo's lawyers, Elías Nzo Ondo, said he was not given any grounds by prison officials for his client's transfer when he inquired. The officials only told him the transfer was carried out "on orders from above."
The lawyer said access to his client was difficult. On May 22, prison authorities repeatedly told him to return later, but after he insisted on seeing his client, he was eventually allowed in. Even so, the prison guard came by repeatedly to interrupt him and tell him to leave. He said that on a prior visit he also was initially turned back and had to insist on being allowed to see his client. During a visit to the prison on May 24, a guard again interrupted his meeting with his client several times and told him to leave.
Mansogo's wife told Human Rights Watch that on May 21, for the first time, prison authorities began searching her when she arrived at the prison and that on that day guards also searched her as she left, including a review of each piece of paper in her possession. Although subsequent inspections occurred once per visit and were less intensive, she said she was searched much more closely than other visitors.
In addition, personal possessions that prison officials took from Mansogo on April 17, including a laptop computer and books, have not been returned, despite a petition from the lawyer. Mansogo has an electric fan and a television that his wife delivered to him in his new cell. But electricity is sporadic and Equatorial Guinea's only television station is state-run.