31 October 2018

Equatorial Guinea: Prominent Activist Severely Beaten

A prominent anti-corruption and human rights activist in Equatorial Guinea says that armed plainclothes security officers severely beat and stabbed him on October 27, 2018, Human Rights Watch, EG Justice, Amnesty International, Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos de España (APDH), and CIVICUS said today.

Alfredo Okenve, the activist, said that the men forced him out of his car at gunpoint and after beating him, abandoned him in an uninhabited area. The assailants may have been targeting his brother, the head of an opposition political party, but continued to beat Okenve even after they confirmed his identity. The United Nations special rapporteur on human rights defenders, Michel Forst, should issue an urgent appeal to the Equatorial government regarding the case.

"Regardless of the reasons, the vicious attack appears to be the government's latest attempt to silence dissent by force," said Tutu Alicante, director of EG Justice, which monitors human rights abuses in Equatorial Guinea. "But beating and leaving Alfredo Okenve for dead by the side of the road will not stop him and others from fighting for a just Equatorial Guinea."

EG Justice spoke to Okenve, vice president of Center for Development Studies and Initiatives (CEID), after the incident. Okenve was in a car with one of his brothers, he said, driving toward his family home in Newtown, a neighborhood in Bata, Equatorial Guinea's largest city, at around 8 p.m. when a car with security sector license plates blocked his car. The car was the same make and model generally used by the country's security operatives. Two armed men in civilian clothes emerged, told him he was under arrest, and began beating him, he said. One threatened to kill him if he resisted.

In order to demonstrate that they had been tracking him, the men then showed Okenve a photo of his brother, Celestino Okenve, which led him to believe that they had abducted the wrong person, Okenve told EG Justice. Celestino Okenve is a pro-democracy activist and leader of the political opposition group Popular Union. Okenve said he insisted he was not the person in the photo, but the men continued to punch him in his face. When another brother who was with him in the car tried to come to his aid, the assailants beat him until he was lying on the floor, Okenve said. The men dragged Okenve from his car, tied his hands behind his back, and continued to beat him while forcing him into their car, he said.

He said he heard one of the men calling someone to report that they had the wrong brother, then telling the others that "the boss says we should not kill him, we should just break his legs." He said they discussed where to take him to avoid being seen.

They drove to a remote forested area, tied a cloth over Okenve's eyes, shoved cloth into his mouth, and took off his pants, Okenve said. The men severely beat him with their pistols and sticks all over his body, including on the soles of his feet, his legs, his face, and his arms. Photographs he provided are consistent with his account.

He said that eventually, the driver told the others that it was time to leave, at which point one assailant stabbed Okenve in his left leg. They took his identification documents and his phone, saying they needed to investigate its contents, he said, removed the cloth from his mouth and eyes, and left.

Okenve's family was unaware of his whereabouts for two hours, until a woman who was passing through the area found him lying on the ground, his nephew and other relatives told EG Justice. Okenve asked her to call his family, who took him to a nearby hospital, they said.

"This physical attack against Alfredo Okenve must not go unpunished," said Marta Colomer, Amnesty International West Africa campaigner. "Human rights defenders and activists in Equatorial Guinea are doing legitimate work. The authorities should take all necessary measures to allow them to carry on doing their work safely, without any threats, attacks, or other forms of harassment."

The Equatorial Guinean government did not respond to a request for comment regarding Okenve's allegations.

The Equatorial Guinea authorities have long harassed both Okenve brothers for their criticism of the government. In April 2017, police arrested Alfredo and the president of CEID, Enrique Asumu, and arbitrarily detained them for two weeks, until each agreed to pay a fine of 2 million CFA francs (US$3,325).

Alfredo Okenve has faced other retaliation for his role with CEID, although it is unclear if the assailants were familiar with his work. Until July, CEID was a member of the country's steering committee to join the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI), an anti-corruption effort that brings together government, industry representatives, and civil society to improve transparency and accountability for managing natural resources. CEID withdrew from that position earlier in 2018, in part, Okenve said, due to ongoing harassment.

The discovery of oil off the coast of Equatorial Guinea in the 1990s catapulted the poverty-stricken country to the highest per capital income in Africa, but endemic corruption and mismanagement has robbed its citizens of much of the oil boom's potential benefit. Equatorial Guinea claims to have renewed its effort to join EITI after its 2010 candidacy was rejected due to the government's repression of civil society, including abuses against Alfredo Okenve.

In May 2010, while its candidacy was being considered, the government removed Alfredo Okenve from two posts at Equatorial Guinea's National University after he agreed to participate in a panel on Equatorial Guinea's transparency record at an event in Washington, DC. A private company that wanted to hire Okenve withdrew the job offer under government pressure, Okenve said at the time. In May, Equatorial Guinea agreed to apply again to join EITI as a precondition for the International Monetary Fund to consider loan request, but the government has made little progress toward this goal, and civil society repression continues unabated.

Celestino Okenve has also been targeted for his political activities. The US State Department reported that in 2016, security forces arrested and tortured him for more than seven hours, at the direction of Security Minister Nicolas Obama Nchama, who supervised the beating. The State Department reported that the minister subsequently gave Okenve a plane ticket to Spain and instructed him not to return.

"The vicious assault on the country's leading transparency activist would appear to extinguish any doubt that the government's good governance commitments to the IMF were nothing more than a cynical ploy to get a loan," said Sarah Saadoun, a business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Anyone who cares about good governance in Equatorial Guinea should be demanding answers from the government about this attack."

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