Washington — The most recent arbitrary detention of a leading opposition politician in Equatorial Guinea on December 4, 2012,raises concerns about human rights conditions in the lead-up to legislative elections in the first half of 2013. Since November 2011, the government has detained at least four high-profile members of the country's beleaguered political opposition.
At 9:00 a.m. on December 4, 2012, Daniel Darío Martínez Ayécaba, the head of the opposition Unión Popular (Popular Union) party, was arrested without a warrant at the Malabo airport as he prepared to leave for Madrid to attend a conference hosted by an opposition group based in Spain.
Darío told EG Justice, which presses for human rights and rule of law in Equatorial Guinea, that he was taken to the Malabo central jail known as "Guantánamo" for questioning. Darío was released conditionally at 3:00 p.m. but the authorities confiscated his passport, ordered him to report to security officials daily, and forbade him to leave the city.
"Harassing opposition figures is no way to build confidence that the upcoming elections will be fair," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The timing raises concerns that the government is attempting to further weaken the opposition ahead of the legislative elections."
Although a date for legislative elections has yet to be announced, the government has indicated that they are expected to take place in early 2013. They should in any case occur by mid-year, under legal requirements that they take place every five years. The current parliament was elected in May 2008.
The country's opposition holds just one out of 100 seats in the parliament, known as the House of Representatives. Constitutional changes approved in November 2011 call for the creation of a bicameral parliament, with the addition of a 75-member Senate. President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo will directly appoint 15 of its members.
The detention of Darío occurred just weeks after the illegal detention of Fabián Nsue Nguema, a prominent and respected human rights lawyer who is also active with an opposition party. Nsue previously served as secretary-general of the Popular Union party. He also has frequently defended opposition politicians in court.
Earlier in 2012, Dr. Wenceslao Mansogo Alo, a medical doctor, human rights defender, and leading member of the opposition Convergence for Social Democracy (CPDS) party, was convicted in a politically motivated trial. He was freed in June after receiving a presidential pardon. But he remains subject to penalties, including a five-year suspension of his medical license and substantial fines, which he is appealing.
One of Mansogo's lawyers, Ponciano Mbomio Nvó, was suspended from legal practice in April for two years for arguing that Mansogo's case was politically motivated.
Like Nsue, Mbomio has often defended jailed political opponents, but he cannot do that now due to the suspension. Mbomio filed a complaint with the International Association of Lawyers, seeking reversal of the suspension order, which was imposed by Equatorial Guinea's lawyers association.
Opposition politicians in Equatorial Guinea have previously faced harassment prior to important political moments. Marcial Abaga Barril, the CPDS representative on the national electoral body in 2011, was detained without a warrant outside of his home, allegedly in connection with a murder investigation, in November 2011. He was released three days later, without charge.
Abaga's arrest and detention occurred just days after the start of campaigning for a Nov. 13 referendum to approve constitutional changes proposed by President Obiang's government, which Abaga's party had strongly opposed.
"The Obiang government's pledges to respect human rights ring hollow in the face of ongoing abuses," said Tutu Alicante, the director of EG Justice. "This latest arrest calls into question the government's commitment to undertake the genuine reforms that are so badly needed in Equatorial Guinea."