Serious human rights violations and denial of fundamental freedoms in Equatorial Guinea are casting a shadow over campaigning ahead of the 26 May, 2013 legislative elections, Amnesty International, EG Justice, and Human Rights Watch said in a statement released today.
The organizations expressed concern over several incidents of politically motivated arrests in recent months. They also cited ongoing harassment of the country's political opposition, reports of voter intimidation, and the denial of free speech and other rights in the lead-up to the election. Human Rights Watch and EG Justice also expressed concern about biased electoral processes and restrictive conditions for international observers.
"President Obiang often says that Africans should demand a voice in global affairs, but he denies one to the people of Equatorial Guinea," said Tutu Alicante, executive director at EG Justice, which presses for human rights and the rule of law in Equatorial Guinea. "The sad truth is that Equatoguineans have never experienced a free and fair election."
The three human rights organizations have routinely recorded human rights violations, including around elections, for which there has been no accountability. In the run-up to the May 26 elections, there are substantial human rights concerns. The Equatorial Guinea authorities must ensure the right of the country's citizens to freely express their views and choices at the polls, the groups said.
Equatorial Guineans will go to the polls on May 26 to elect members of a new parliament as well as local council members across the country. Voters will also elect, for the first time, 55 members of a new Senate established in accordance with the revised constitution promulgated in February 2012. The remaining 15 senators will be directly appointed by President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has been in power since 1979.
The government and the Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea (PDGE) party, led by President Obiang, have a track record of cracking down on political opponents ahead of elections, often citing "security reasons" and suspected coup attempts.
According to sources who spoke to Amnesty International, an Equatoguinean citizen who returned to the country from exile in Sweden in early 2013 has been held without charge in a Malabo jail since March 12, when he was arrested without warrant in connection with an alleged conspiracy against the state. He denies the accusation. Another person in detention without charge since October 2012 was also accused of plotting to destabilize the country and his lawyer has alleged that he was tortured.
"The authorities must end arbitrary detention and torture and ensure perpetrators are brought to justice," said Netsanet Belay, Africa director at Amnesty International. "The atmosphere of impunity and intimidation must be lifted and people must be able to freely express their views and participate in the formation of their own government without fear of reprisal."
President Obiang was re-elected in 2009 after a campaign period in which opposition candidates were harassed, intimidated, denied equal access to the media, and faced other constraints. International monitoring of the election was weak, and the political opposition alleged systematic fraud in the voting process.
The May 26 legislative and municipal elections will be the first elections in Equatorial Guinea since a November 2011 referendum on constitutional changes, which were approved with 97.7 percent of the vote. The referendum was marred by reports of voting fraud, harassment of opposition supporters, and intimidation of voters.
The government described the revised constitution as a major reform, but the changes largely bolstered President Obiang's already considerable powers. For example, President Obiang will chair the body that controls judges, the Supreme Council on Judicial Power, and will also appoint or approve the heads of "independent" institutions ostensibly charged with improving government accountability. He also has declared that new presidential term limits will not apply retroactively.
The ruling PDGE benefits from a virtual monopoly on power, funding, and access to national media, while political opponents face severe constraints. Opposition members are pressured through various means, including arbitrary arrest and harassment.
Only two political parties will offer candidates independently in the elections. The other 10 officially recognized political parties have formed an alliance with the PDGE. Campaigning is scheduled to open May 10.
In 2011, President Obiang signed the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance on behalf of Equatorial Guinea, making a commitment to uphold the purpose and objectives of the charter, which include promoting democratic culture and practice, as well as building and strengthening governance.
"President Obiang wants to claim the mantle of democracy, but that will require much more than holding tightly controlled elections whose results are a foregone conclusion," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "He needs to give up the tools of repression and allow people to participate fully in public life."