Political activists and civil society members including human rights defenders continued to face intimidation, harassment and arbitrary detention. Rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly were restricted particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The right to health was hindered due to lack of adequate equipment in health care facilities. Indigenous Peoples still faced discrimination while women in those communities also experienced high levels of gender-based violence.
The ruling party nominated President Sassou Nguesso to stand again in the 2021 presidential elections. He had served as President since 1997 and, prior to that, between 1979 and 1992.
On 30 March, the government declared a state of emergency which established measures to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic including curfews, border closures and mandatory wearing of face masks. At the end of the year, curfews remained in place in the capital, Brazzaville, and in Pointe-Noire between 11pm and 5am and 8pm and 5am during working days and weekends, respectively. The decline in oil revenue during the pandemic led the authorities to ask the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for urgent economic aid despite their having failed to implement the conditions to secure an IMF loan of over US$400 million in 2019.
Political opponents, human rights defenders and activists faced intimidation, harassment and arbitrary detention.
In March, Hallel Bouesse, a member of Ras-le-bol, a pro-democracy movement, was arrested at Maya-Maya International Airport in Brazzaville, as he was about to board a flight to Senegal to participate in a training event. After being questioned by airport security officers about the reasons for his trip, he was taken to the General Directorate of Territorial Surveillance where he was again questioned about his trip, his links with Ras-le-Bol and the Congolese Human Rights Observatory. He was released without charge the same day. His passport was confiscated for two days.
In June, the Prosecutor appealed against the Brazzaville High Court’s decision in March to provisionally release Parfait Mabiala Hojeij, Franck Donald Saboukoulou, Guil Ossebi Miangué and Rolf Meldry Dissavouloud, all supporters of Incarner l’Espoir, an opposition movement whose leader announced in June 2019 that he would run in the 2021 elections. According to Article 171 of the Criminal Procedure Code, the Prosecutor’s appeal was out of time – the law stipulates that appeals must be made within 24 hours of a ruling. The four were arrested between November and December 2019 and charged with breaching state security. They remained in arbitrary detention in Brazzaville until the 4 December decision by the Brazzaville Court of Appeal which declared the Prosecutor’s appeal inadmissible and freed the four detainees pending trial.
In July, Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko, aged 73, was evacuated to Turkey for one month for medical treatment after his health deteriorated in Brazzaville prison. He had been detained since June 2016 after standing as a presidential candidate in the same year. He was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment in 2018 after being convicted of an “attack on internal state security, and illegal possession of weapons of war and munitions”. In the same year, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said it considered his detention to be arbitrary.
Freedoms of expression and assembly
The rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly were undermined in the context of the authorities’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rocil Otouna, a news anchor for Télé Congo, a state-owned national TV channel, learned from his boss that he had been suspended after he presented a debate on the President’s speech about the COVID-19 pandemic on 30 April. During the debate he questioned the Minister of Justice and a doctor who was a member of the experts’ panel on the National Committee for the Fight against COVID-19 about the lack of available information on the number of people who were infected with, or had recovered from COVID-19; and on the social consequences of the government’s restrictive measures. According to Reporters Without Borders, on 3 May the Ministry of Communications dismissed claims of his suspension. Meanwhile, Rocil Otouna was sacked from his post as Press Secretary at the Communications Ministry. On 12 May, the Higher Council for Freedom of Communication, the media regulator, confirmed Rocil Otouna’s suspension from Télé Congo and called for his reinstatement.
In July, the Secretary-General of Brazzaville Department banned a demonstration organized in support of Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko’s evacuation to receive medical treatment. He said the ban was issued to limit the risks posed by COVID-19.
Right to health
Crucial health care facilities lacked adequate equipment. This prevented the population from fully enjoying their right to health.
Health workers complained about the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect them from COVID-19.
In January, unions denounced conditions at the Brazzaville University Hospital, including water cuts, closure of some of the specialized services, non-sterile wards, an empty pharmacy, and broken radiography equipment.
On 3 April, at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, a trade union branch representing workers at the Edith Lucie Bongo Ondimba Hospital in Oyo city sent a list of complaints to the sub-prefect of Oyo raising concerns mainly about the inoperability of the emergency operating theatre and radiography equipment, and the lack of pharmaceutical supplies and oxygen tanks. They also demanded partial payment of their unpaid salaries.
On 30 July, health workers met in an extraordinary General Assembly at the Adolphe Sicé Hospital in Pointe-Noire and denounced the Hospital’s outdated and inadequate technical equipment and raised concerns about shortages of PPE which further exposed them and their patients to the risk of COVID-19 infection. They also issued an alert about the rise in numbers of hospital workers infected with COVID-19 – more than a dozen at the time of the General Assembly – and the reduced capacity to provide care for patients. The workers denounced the fact that they had not been paid for eight months and demanded three months' back payment.
In September, health workers treating COVID-19 patients at the Albert Leyono municipal clinic in Brazzaville asked the President to take responsibility for the health of front-line workers. According to the media, the clinic had been without a laundry for six months, which meant that it was not possible to ensure sufficient hygiene standards.
According to the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples published in July, despite progressive legislation adopted in recent years, particularly a 2011 law to promote Indigenous Peoples’ rights, communities continued to face high levels of discrimination in both urban and rural settings, and no progress had been made on the demarcation and titling of land. Illiteracy remained widespread and access to justice and employment with decent wages remained particularly inadequate. Indigenous women said their access to sexual and reproductive health care was limited; they faced gender-based violence including rape and early marriage; maternal and infant mortality rates were high; and they were food insecure.