Niger: Government must investigate post-election crackdown and release protesters

Niger:  Government must investigate post-election crackdown and release protesters - Media

Protests followed the recent elections, with widespread reports of police brutality

Following on from Niger’s new president, Mohamed Bazoum, being sworn in on 2 April 2021, ARTICLE 19 calls for an independent investigation into the continued detention of hundreds of people, including children, in connection with protests over preliminary election results. It also deplores the brutality police used against protesters, including use of bullets, which resulted in the death of a protester. We condemn the arbitrary arrests, as well as the 10-day internet shutdown designed to restrict people’s access to information. 

Alfred Nkuru Bulakali, Deputy Regional Director of ARTICLE 19 West Africa, said: “The current trend of crackdown on citizens in the electoral context in West Africa is very concerning and a setback for democracy. Elections are a moment for citizens to express their voices on their future leaders. Free expression, access to information and peaceful protest with appropriate police protection should be afforded to all throughout the process. Citizens should be able to express themselves in the ballots and the public space freely and peacefully without fear for their lives, or being victims of harm and arbitrary and unlawful arrests.” 

Declaration of results

On 21 February 2021, Niger held the second round of its presidential elections. On 23 February, the electoral commission declared the ruling party candidate Mohamed Bazoum as the winner, winning 55.75% of the votes. Opposition leader Mahamane Ousmane rejected the result, prompting his supporters to take to the streets. The security forces used tear gas and in some cases resorted to bullets to disperse the crowd. Video footage appears to show the police used brutality when arresting protesters. Government and judicial authorities have given conflicting figures, but it is clear that police officers carried out multiple human rights violations.

A government press release about the violence fails to distinguish between peaceful protesters, children, and people committing acts of violence. No information about the detained children was provided. However, Niger’s penal code sets out that a minor under the age of 13 cannot be held criminally responsible. Furthermore, teenagers between 13 and 18 should only be detained in exceptional circumstances and the highest priority must be given to cases of those detained pending trial to ensure the shortest possible duration of detention. Whatever the circumstances, children are entitled to be held separately from adults, to be tried by specialized juvenile courts, as well as protection, assistance and access to education as a means of reform when facing these types of charges. ARTICLE 19 calls on the government to uphold these rights. 

As well as setting up an independent investigation into these incidents, authorities must refrain from abusing the law to unlawfully charge protesters and political activists, and ensure that the rights of all people still in detention are respected. The African Commission’s Guidelines on the Control of Assemblies by Law Enforcement Agencies in Africa set out the security forces’ role during protests, including the obligation to protect protesters and to refrain from unnecessary and excessive use of force. Likewise, the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials and the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials clarify these roles.

Wave of arrests of protesters

Initially the Minister of the Interior reported 468 arrests including opposition leaders, while the prosecutor recorded 652 arrests including 160 minors, a difference of 184 cases. The prosecutor added that 138 minors and 183 adults were released due to “lack of evidence” and that 328 others were charged for alleged (…) “deliberate arson of an inhabited place, armed gathering, violence against law enforcement officers in the exercise of their duty, rebellion, conspiracy against the authority of the State and propaganda of a racial, regionalist or religious nature.” His explanation left unclear the fate of three others whom, according to him, had also been arrested.

Interior Minister Alkache Alhada reported that two people died during protests, including one who was shot dead. The Ministry of Public Security confirmed that two people died but gave no further information. 

“The discordance of reports between judicial and governmental institutions as well as other actors and the unfortunate precedents to muzzle activists over the last two years dictate the necessity of an independent investigation to shed light on what exactly happened and hold those responsible accountable,” insisted ARTICLE 19’s Regional Deputy Director Alfred Nkuru. “Governmental officers who failed to protect protesters should be among those investigated.”

 

Accusations against opposition leader and arrests

A number of opposition leaders were also arrested without irrefutable evidence of their involvement in any violence. Minister of the Interior Alkache Alhada promised to be firm with those who caused damage and set fires.

He accused Hama Amadou, the country’s main opposition leader, whose candidacy for the election had been rejected, of being responsible for the unrest, pointing in particular to his calls for a new leadership in August 2020. Hama Amadou was arrested for this, among other charges, and is accused of using divisive language.  However, no link has been shown between his behaviour or language and the riots and violence. After more than a month in prison, judicial officials confirmed that Amadou had been given permission to leave prison for medical treatment. 

ARTICLE 19 interviewed Maikoul Zodi, the coordinator of the activist group Mouvement Tournons La page Citoyen in Niger, who said: 

“To bring back peace in the country authorities must favour dialogue between Nigeriens, guarantee freedom of expression and allow the justice system to do its work in accordance with international standards.” 

Over the past two years, Niger has often used the Covid-19 health crisis to ban and suppress demonstrations in the country and use the repressive provisions of the penal code and cybercrime law to arrest journalists and activists for their online and offline opinions, or for exercising the right to protest as recognised by the country’s laws.

While the Interior Minister and the public prosecutor have behaved heavy-handedly against protesters and opposition leaders, they have said nothing against public officers who failed to protect journalists, ordered internet shutdowns and unlawfully violated the right to access to information, including internet access, as well as economic rights.              

 

Infringement of media freedom

On 25 February, unknown persons set on fire the house of Moussa Kaka, a Radio France Internationale (RFI) correspondent. RFI said this might be linked to his journalistic work. Moussa Kaka said he had been subjected to several threats of cyber-harassment from unknown persons. Kaka, who was previously jailed between 2007 and 2009 for terrorism after reporting on an armed group in the country, filed a complaint but was not granted any specific protection from the authorities. 

“The authorities must protect journalists from all forms of attacks and ensure they can carry out their work without being disturbed. They must investigate this and bring those suspected to justice and refrain themselves from muzzling the press as has been the case the last two years. All actors must condemn this attack. Democracy needs free media,” said Alfred Nkuru.

Ibrahim Harouna, President of the “Maison de la presse nigérienne,” condemned the attack and denounced the climate of intimidation towards the media since the beginning of the presidential campaign.

Internet shutdown

From 24 February to 5 March, mobile operators subjected the citizens of Niger to a mobile internet blackout throughout the country, without giving any explanation. ARTICLE 19 condemns this move, emphasising that blocking access to the internet constitutes a serious violation of human rights, impinging on the right to access to information and freedom of expression online. It can also be used to hide other human rights violations so they are not known to the world. In an electoral context, it prevents circulation of electoral information, raising the question of transparency and preventing citizens from expressing their opinions throughout the process. The African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms and the 2011 report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of expression call for the Internet to be maintained even during periods of political unrest.                                                                                                                    

The civil society organisations Réseau des organisations pour la transparence et l’analyse budgétaire (the Network of Organisations for Transparency and Budget Analysis – Rotab) and the “Association des jeunes avocats du Niger” (AJAN) filed court complaints regarding the blackout measures. We call for an independent instruction of the cases without political interference.   

International positions   

The international community including The International Organisation of La Francophonie (OIF), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the United Nations condemned the recent violence and called all stakeholders to exercise restraint.

                                                                                                                                                  

   

For more information, please contact: 

Alfred Nkuru Bulakali, Deputy Regional Director of ARTICLE 19 Senegal/West Africa: [email protected] Or Eliane NYOBE, Senior Programme Assistant, ARTICLE 19 Sénégal/Afrique de l’Ouest: [email protected] Tel: +221 77 553 13 87 or +221 33 869 03 22

 

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