Thursday, May 24, 2012

State Department Report Reveals Human Rights Progress in Equatorial Guinea

West African nation has no political prisoners, citizens have unfettered Internet access. There were no credible reports of crime.

There are no political prisoners in Equatorial Guinea, according to the Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011, which was released today. The report documented several positive practices and developments in the country in a report that was more positive in tone and substance than in years past.

Although the report included critical information on the ability of political opposition to challenge the ruling party, the conduct of the courts, and official corruption, it also gave the country clear credit for areas in which it has improved, attempted to improve, or traditionally been strong.

The report indicated that uncensored news is more widely available in the country than critics claim. It also noted efforts to improve health conditions, protect women, children, the disabled and minorities, and improve the penal system.

The report appeared to cast doubt on accounts in international media last year that a French- language host of a television program was terminated from his position for mentioning Libya on a cultural show. Referring to those reports, it noted that “the events of North Africa were widely discussed on radio, television, and in the newly approved independent newspaper, El Lector.”

Equatorial Guinea has been the target of severe criticism by human rights and other organizations. They cite the dominant role of the ruling party, criticize the functioning of the court system, and access of the people to information, and they accuse the government of torture. The State Department report appeared to agree with the critics on the first two points, but struck a more nuanced tone on the subject of torture. It said, “While the law prohibits such practices, security officials abused persons during the year. Police officers and military personnel occasionally used excessive force to gather information about an individual’s suspected crimes. Opposition leaders and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to criticize the ‘government for its systematic use of torture,’ but there were no reliable reports that torture occurred.”

The report also shed light on how the people of Equatorial Guinea obtain information that is critical of the government. The report said, “There were no government restrictions on access to the Internet or credible reports that the government monitored e-mail or Internet chat rooms. Individuals and groups could engage in the expression of views via the Internet, including by e-mail. Most overt criticism of the government came from the country’s community in exile, and the Internet replaced broadcast media as the primary way opposition views were expressed and disseminated. Exiled citizens’ sites were not blocked, and some Internet-based criticism of the government and its leaders was openly sourced without negative repercussions to individuals living inside the country.”

Some of the positive factors highlighted in the report are:

  • There are no political prisoners in the country. The government in June pardoned 22 prisoners serving long jail terms for plotting against the regime.
  • There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
  • The government recently renovated three prisons, and while conditions remain inadequate, they are improved. The largest prison has only 269 inmates.
  • Prisoners generally have reasonable access to visitors and were permitted religious observances. The government appointed a local judge to serve as ombudsman to hear complaints about sentencing. The nation’s attorney general met with 90 percent of inmates in the largest prison to determine their dates of imprisonment, legal situation, sentencing dates, and state of health.
  • The government signed a headquarters agreement with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) giving the international organization a permanent presence in the country.
  • A foreign contractor is training police officers and their leaders on human rights, prevention of trafficking in persons, rule of law, appropriate use of force, and code of ethics. Evidence and feedback from expatriates, citizens, and community leaders indicated improvements in performance in human rights and professional conduct, particularly among younger officers who received the training.
  • Although nearly all media are state controlled, foreign channels were not censored, were broadcast throughout the country, and included Radio France International, the BBC, and Radio Exterior, the international shortwave service from Spain.
  • The government approved the establishment of an independent newspaper that was published infrequently throughout the year.
  • International news reported that Juan Pedro Medene, a French language social program host, was terminated from his position on local television for mentioning Libya on a cultural show; however, the events of North Africa were widely discussed on radio, television, and in the newly approved independent newspaper, El Lector.
  •  Unlike in the previous year, there were no reports that the government forcibly evicted families from their homes to make room for roads and luxury housing developments.
  • The government did not overtly limit participation of minorities in politics.
  • Numerous public outreach efforts were undertaken to improve public awareness of the issues associated with violence and discrimination against women and children, discrimination against ethnic minorities, and discrimination against those with HIV/AIDS.
  • The government conducted public awareness campaigns on women’s rights and domestic violence. In accordance with a 2009 law, family courts were created to deal with cases of violence against women; however, domestic violence cases continued to be handled by district courts. On occasion, police organized workshops on family violence, and public marches against violence against women were authorized.
  • The government has reduced maternal mortality and the country is on track to achieve its Millennium Development Goal due in large part to a successful malaria eradication campaign and improved care in hospitals.
  • The government continued to partner with a foreign oil company to undertake a multimillion-dollar school renovation program and work with a foreign country to reform outdated curriculum materials.
  • The Ministry of Social Affairs and the Promotion of Women operated several programs to deter child marriage.
  • The government and the Catholic Church worked together to provide care for persons with mental disabilities. The country’s first lady gave several highly publicized donations to help persons living with disabilities. The government worked to protect the rights of persons with disabilities, including broadcasting public service announcements regarding rights of persons with disabilities.
  • The government vigorously enforced laws prohibiting child labor.
  • The government respected religious freedom in law and in practice.