Niger: Civil society organisations call on authorities to end harassment of human rights defenders 

⦁ Seven of 15 prosecuted activists under arrest
⦁ Risks associated with COVID-19 exploited to stifle civic space
⦁ Investigate the death of three people

Several civil society organisations have today expressed concern over the arrest of at least 15 of their members and the detention and prosecution of seven of them. These events are taking place in the context of an increasingly deteriorating climate for civil society in Niger where several serious violations of fundamental freedoms have been recorded in recent weeks.

On 13 March, the Council of Ministers released a statement on the measures the country is taking to control the spread of COVID-19, including the banning of gatherings of over 1,000 people.

Law enforcement officials also used tear gas to disperse the gathering. According to numerous sources, the resulting fire from the tear gas caused a fire on the roof of the Tagabati market in Niamey, killing at least three people.
Signatory organisations

On 15 March, an assembly was held in the capital, Niamey, to denounce a misappropriation of public funds for the purchase of weapon equipment intended to fight terrorism. The rally was declared by the organisers before the Cabinet issued its communiqué after which they did not receive a notification of the ban. They therefore decided to continue the assembly despite the ban. That same day, very early in the morning, security forces blocked all the routes leading to the ‘Place de la concertation’ in Niamey, where the rally was planned.

Law enforcement officials also used tear gas to disperse the gathering. According to numerous sources, the resulting fire from the tear gas caused a fire on the roof of the Tagabati market in Niamey, killing at least three people.

Between 15 and 17 March, at least 15 people were arrested and detained in the premises of the judicial police for "participation in a prohibited demonstration and aiding in arson." Several of these activists had already been arrested in 2018 in a wave of arrests linked to protests against the 2018 finance law.

To date, Moudi Moussa, Mounkaila Halidou, Moussa Tchangari, Habibou Soumaila, Sani Chekaraou and Maïkoul Zodi are still under arrest. They have been transferred to various prisons, some located more than 100 km from the city of Niamey, and in areas under state of emergency.

They are being prosecuted for "organising a prohibited demonstration and for complicity in the destruction of public property, arson and manslaughter", with the exception of Sani Chekaraou who is prosecuted for "assault on the authorities of the big market”.

In the days before the demonstration, several journalists had been targeted: summoned by the police or arrested after speaking out or for conducting interviews related to the issue of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of them, Mamane Kaka Touda, journalist and human rights defender, is still detained, accused of "disseminating data which may disturb public order" simply for having shared information on the existence of a suspect case.

On 20 March, after reporting the first case of COVID-19, Niger authorities suspended all visits to detainees for a period of at least three months and all court hearings until March 25.

Although restrictions on in-person visits or contact to people in detention may be legitimate to prevent the COVID-19 pandemic, these restrictions must be proportionate to the objective of preventing (or responding to) a pandemic.

The signatory organisations emphasize:

1. Their concerns regarding the increasing repression of civil society in Niger and the exploitation of the risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic to stifle civic space online and offline - notably the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association, and political participation guaranteed by international obligations and by the Constitution of Niger;

2. If exceptional measures are put in place to deal with health issues, they must respect the strict conditions of necessity, proportionality of legality, and non-discrimination under international standards established in the matter, in particular Articles 4, 9, 10, 14, 19, 21, 22 and 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ratified by Niger in 1986.

In particular, emergency declarations justified by the COVID-19 epidemic should not be used as a cover for disproportionate and repressive action by the authorities, as underlined in a recent press release by the United Nations Special Rapporteurs:

⦁ These measures may in no case serve to harass human rights defenders on judicial terms, in particular the possible laying of charges;
⦁ Although restrictions on in-person visits or contact to people in detention may be legitimate to prevent the COVID-19 pandemic, these restrictions must be proportionate to the objective of preventing (or responding to) a pandemic. Detainee visits should be replaced by means and opportunities to contact the outside world, for example by telephone, e-mail or video calls.
⦁ Justice services must be able to provide a minimum service in order to guarantee the continuity of judicial procedures and the rule of law, while respecting the right to a fair trial.
⦁ Niger has just joined the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which requires the country to implement clear requirements in terms of fundamental freedoms, under the Civil Society Protocol. The Nigerien authorities must therefore comply with their commitments to these.

The signatory organisations call on the Niger authorities to:

⦁ Put an end to any practice of harassment against members of civil society on the grounds of health safety.
⦁ Comply with the international standards in force relating to the exceptions permitted by international law, in particular by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the regional and international instruments relating to human rights ratified by Niger.
⦁ Conduct an independent and impartial investigation into the facts recorded during the demonstration on 15 March, in particular those which led to the deaths of at least three people - identify the perpetrators and present them in a civil court, in accordance with the right to a fair trial;
⦁ Guarantee the respect of the rights of detainees, in particular their rights to adequate hygiene and food, access to healthcare and access to the outside world through communications with their lawyers, families and relatives;

The signatory organisations call on the following organisations:

⦁ The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to urge the authorities of Niger to implement the requests mentioned above;
⦁ The EITI International Secretariat to contact the Niger authorities and to ensure that the government follows the above recommendations, in order to fulfill the requirements of the Civil Society Protocol. If these requirements are not met, the EITI Secretariat should consider questioning the acceptance of Niger's application;

SIGNATORIES

1. Publish What You Pay (PWYP)
2. Tournons la Page Niger (TLP)
3. Amnesty International
4. Agir Ensemble contre les droits de l’homme (AEDH)
5. CCFD-Terre Solidaire
...


ABOUT THE SEVEN DETAINEES

1. Mr. Moudi Moussa, National Coordinator of Tournons La Page (TLP), President Movement of Young Republicans (MJR), member organisation of Publish What You Pay (PWYP) Niger

2. Mr. Mounkaila Halidou, Secretary General of the National Union of Contract Agents and Basic Education Officials (SYNACEB) and Member of the Network of Organizations for Transparency and Budget Analysis (ROTAB), member organisation of PWYP Niger, former President of the PWYP Niger Administration Committee

3. Maikoul Zodi, National Coordinator of Tournons la Page, President of MJR, member organisation of PWYP Niger

4. Moussa Tchangari, Secretary General of Alternative Citizen Space (AEC)

5. Sani Chekaraou, President of the Trade Union of Importers and Exporters of Niger

6. Mamane Kaka Touda, journalist and human rights defender, Youth Program Coordinator of the NGO "Alternative Espaces Citoyens"

7- Habibou Soumaila, TLP Niamey Communication Officer