Equatorial Guinea: African Cup of Nations peaceful protesters must be released

Equatorial Guinea must immediately and unconditionally release three men arrested two weeks ago, suspected solely of peacefully protesting against the country’s hosting of Africa’s top soccer competition, a group of leading international human rights and transparency organizations said today. 

Amnesty International, the Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos de España, EG Justice, the Open Society Justice Initiative, and the Plataforma Portuguesa das ONGD are calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Celestino Okenve, Antonio Nguema and Miguel Mbomio. 

“Exercising freedom of expression should never be the basis for imprisonment, and reflects poorly on Equatorial Guinea’s role as host of the Africa Cup of Nations. The authorities should immediately and unconditionally release these human rights activists, whom Amnesty International considers to be Prisoners of Conscience,” said Steve Cockburn, Amnesty International deputy regional director for West and central Africa. 

“Authorities must also ensure that the activists are effectively protected from torture and other ill-treatment, and that they have regular access to a lawyer of their choice, their family and adequate medical care.” 

The three people were arrested on the eve of the three-week African Cup of Nations tournament.   

Okenve was arrested without a warrant on 14 January, while distributing leaflets in the mainland city of Bata, Litoral Province. The leaflets called for the boycott of the tournament, which opened on 17 January. He was hit as he was arrested by a group of seven police officers. According to our information, the arrest was ordered by the governor for Wele Nzas province who told Okenve that what he was doing was wrong and against the President. 

Police also arrested Antonio Nguema, Okenve’s former student, who was present at the event. He was not handing out leaflets but was arrested when asking police on what grounds they were arresting Okenve. Both men were taken to Bata Central Police Station where, upon arrival, Okenve again demanded to know the reason for his arrest and was again hit by a police officer. 

On 16 January, a third man, Miguel Mbomio, was arrested in Bata for holding a copy of the pamphlet criticizing the staging of the soccer tournament. He did not know Okenve or his detention but had gone to Bata Central Police Station to deal with a private matter. The police officer on duty noticed the leaflet he was holding and arrested him. 

Since their arrest the three men have had very limited access to their lawyer, who have not been allowed to be present during interrogations, and have not been informed of the charges against them. 

Police records indicate that Okenve has been accused of “destabilization” against the African Cup of Nations, although he has not appeared before a judge. The five organizations consider that the men are being held in arbitrary detention and have been arrested solely for the peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and assembly. 

Okenve is an economist, engineer, and retired professor from the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, where he taught communications. He is also the coordinator of the Solidarity Forum for Equatorial Guinea, and a well-known blogger and political activist.   

“Equatorial Guinea needs to immediately end these repressive and arbitrary tactics to intimidate and silence critics”, said Tutu Alicante, Executive Director of EG Justice. “If President Obiang feels comfortable arbitrarily detaining and denying justice to citizens while the eyes of Africa are on Equatorial Guinea then I shudder to think of what we have ahead of us when presidential elections are held between now and next year.”