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Government urged to end systematic crackdown on critics, allow peaceful protests

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - London, April 4, 2011 - The government of Djibouti should immediately end its systematic crackdown on peaceful critics and the political opposition, Human Rights Watch said today. Presidential elections are scheduled for April 8, 2011, but since February, the government has banned all demonstrations and arbitrarily arrested and prosecuted peaceful protesters and opposition leaders.

"As elections in Djibouti approach, the government has trampled on those very rights that make a vote free and fair," said Rona Peligal, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Peaceful protests elsewhere in the region are no justification for the government to deny citizens their basic rights."

The Djibouti government has repeatedly prevented protest rallies since it violently dispersed a peaceful demonstration on February 18 and arrested scores of demonstrators and bystanders. The security forces responded with violence and arrests after demonstrators left the area designated for the rally, and marched to the national stadium.

The February 18 rally was called to protest an amendment to the Djibouti constitution that allows President Ismael Omar Guelleh to run for a third term on April 8. Opposition parties also object to an opaque election system they believe unfairly benefits the president and his party.

Among those arrested on February 18 were three leaders of political opposition parties, who were detained for a day. The government has initiated judicial inquiries for sedition against the three, but has not brought charges against them. More than 100 people rounded up that day were charged with assault ("attaintes à l'intégrité physique ou psychique de la personne") and demonstrating without a permit.

About 80 were brought to court on February 27. After the judge dismissed 40 cases, proceedings were recessed and the justice minister, Mohammed Barkat Abdillahi, removed the judge and replaced him. Defense lawyers told Human Rights Watch that the new judge then promptly convicted 25 defendants and sentenced them to prison. Two require medical attention but have been denied access to doctors. Others remain incarcerated. According to the Ligue Djiboutienne des Droits Humains (LDDH), Djibouti's main human rights organization, these detainees are among a total of 71 political prisoners in Djibouti.

The opposition had planned demonstrations every Friday until the election. However, there was no demonstration on February 25, as there was a heavy police presence at the stadium plaza, the site of previous protests, and the street leading to it. On March 3, Interior Minister Yacin Elmi Bouh denied a permit to hold a demonstration the next day, citing the violence on February 18.

On March 2, the government expelled Democracy International (DI) from the country. The international election monitoring organization funded by the US Agency for International Development had been providing expert assistance to the Djibouti government to prepare for the election. The expulsion order accused DI of being an "illegal organization" supporting the opposition's "seditious" activities.

Harassment of the opposition has continued as the elections approach, Human Rights Watch said. On March 11, the authorities rounded up four political party leaders and spirited them outside the city a few hours before a protest meeting they had scheduled for later that day. There is no indication that the government had obtained arrest warrants. The four leaders were released by early evening; no protest occurred in their absence.

The political opposition parties, claiming that the Guelleh administration had made it impossible to conduct a fair election, chose not to nominate candidates for the presidential election, effectively boycotting it. The government used that decision as an excuse to deny permits for rallies in front of opposition headquarters on March 25. Even though the rallies were designed to call attention to what the opposition considers objectionable policies rather than to support a candidate, the Interior Ministry said that only parties fielding candidates could hold public meetings during the two-week election cycle.

The blanket ban on demonstrations contravenes article 15 of the Djiboutian constitution, which protects the rights to freedom of expression. It also violates articles 19 and 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Djibouti is a party, setting out the rights to free expression and peaceful assembly.

"Repeatedly harassing and threatening opposition leaders and denying permits for protests are flagrant abuses of power," Peligal said. "Peaceful protest is a fundamental right that is central to a democratic society."

To read the full press release, click here

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