Reporters Without Borders notes that Gaston Asseko, the technical director of radio Sainte-Marie, and the three leading civil society members held in the same case were released provisionally yesterday, as was a police officer who was arrested with them. Tendance Gabon editor Léon Dieudonné Kougou, who was arrested with Asseko on 30 December, was released provisionally on 7 January.
“Asseko's provisional release is excellent news for him and his family,” Reporters Without Borders said. “He recently underwent an operation and his health deteriorated during these two weeks of detention. We now pin our hopes on the investigating judge's ability to recognise that there is no substance to these charges and to dismiss the case.”
Asseko and his co-defendants were removed from Libreville prison late yesterday and taken before an investigating judge, who announced they were being granted provisional release. Asseko told Reporters Without Borders he was “relieved” but said the 14 days in prison had taken their toll on him.
His lawyer, Ruphin Nkoulou-Ondo, told Reporters Without Borders that they were charged with “oral or written propaganda with a view to inciting a revolt against the authorities” and “possession of a document with the intention of disseminating it for propaganda purposes.” The charges were like a “Sword of Damocles hanging over them,” he added.
The document mentioned in the charges is an open letter to President Omar Bongo that was published last month by Bruno Ben Moubamba, the spokesman of a group called the Free Actors of Gabonese Civil Society. It calls on Bongo to give an accounting of his management of the country's finances for the last 40 years.
The charges carry a maximum sentence of 5 years in prison and a fine of 250,000 CFA francs (380 euros).
07.01.2009 - Climate of fear takes hold following arrests of two journalists and three civil society members
Reporters Without Borders is deeply disturbed by the detention of two journalists and three leading civil society members at the Libreville headquarters of the criminal investigation police for the past week - longer than the legal period for police custody - without any explanation being given. Other journalists have been questioned in connection with the case in the past few days.
“The current climate of fear is without precedent in recent years in Gabon and is indicative of President Omar Bongo's readiness to hunt down all those who show too much interest in such subjects as the Bongo family's possessions and the government's handling of public funds,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The persecution of journalists must stop at once and the detainees much be released, as they have not been charged.”
Gaston Asseko, the technical director of radio Sainte-Marie, and Léon Dieudonné Kougou, the editor of the privately-owned fortnightly Tendance Gabon, were arrested by intelligence officers on 30 December and taken to the headquarters of the criminal investigative police. Contrary to reports, Reporters Without Borders can confirm that they have not been released. Asseko recently underwent an operation and needs medical follow-up.
Although no official reason has been given for their arrest, everything suggests that it was prompted by their participation in a meeting in Libreville with Bruno Ben Moubamba, the spokesperson of the Free Actors of Gabonese Civil Society, who had come from Paris.
The two journalists have also been covering the complaint brought before the French courts by the French chapter of Transparency International (TI) and a French NGO, Sherpa, accusing the presidents of Gabon, Congo and Equatorial Guinea of embezzlement and misuse of public funds in connection with the acquisition of luxury property in France.
Tendance Gabon was suspended for three months on 11 March 2008 for reprinting a report from the French daily Le Monde about President Bongo's up-market real estate holdings in France.
The day after the arrest of Asseko and Kougou, three other people were arrested and taken to criminal investigative police headquarters. They were Marc Ona Essangui, the head of the NGO Brainforest and spokesman of the coalition Publish What You Pay (PCQVP), Georges Mpaga, a PCQVP member and head of the Network of Free Civil Society Organisations for Good Governance in Gabon (ROLGB), and Gregory Ngbwa Mintsa, a Gabonese citizen who is the only African to add his name to the Paris lawsuit filed by TI and Sherpa.
Reporters Without Borders wrote to President Bongo on 2 January urging him to explain the arrests of the journalists and civil society leaders and ensure that their rights are respected. No reply has been received.