Attack on journalists, activists, protesters in West, Central Africa reaches breaking point - Amnesty calls for protection rights the 'Brave'
Human rights defenders, journalists and protesters in West and
Central Africa are facing ever-higher levels of persecution,
intimidation and violence, warned Amnesty International on Tuesday as it
launched a new global campaign demanding an end to the onslaught of
attacks against brave individuals standing up to injustice.
The ‘Brave’ campaign calls on states in the region to recognize the
legitimacy of human rights defenders by respecting their work, giving
space for it and protecting them from threats. States should take
concrete measures to achieve these aims including by adopting strong
protection laws and revising or repealing laws used to target human
“States across the region have deployed a broad and increasingly
inventive range of tactics to stop people standing up against injustice
and to coerce them into self-censorship,” said Alioune Tine, Amnesty
International’s Regional Director for West and Central Africa
“By removing the right to protest, placing activists under
surveillance, and intimidating them with threats and physical attacks,
many governments are carrying out a full-frontal assault on human rights
In a briefing ‘”Shut down for speaking out: Human Rights Defenders
under attack in West and Central Africa” published today, Amnesty
International documents the mounting danger faced by those defending
human rights in the region.
Growing arsenal of tools used to crack down on defenders
The combination of mass surveillance, new technology, the misuse of
laws and crackdowns on peaceful protests is exposing human rights
defenders to dangerously high levels of risk, the briefing warns.
In almost every country in West and Central Africa, people
participating in peaceful protests have been repressed through the
banning of demonstrations or by the use of the unnecessary or excessive
force against protesters.
Since January 2014, Amnesty International has documented 271
protesters killed – one every five days – and thousands more injured
during protests across the region, although the true number is likely to
be higher. The overwhelming majority of these killings and injuries
were committed by the security forces who used teargas, batons and live
ammunition to disperse protesters or armored vehicles to ram their way
through the crowds, even when protests were peaceful. There is rarely,
if ever, accountability for such heavy-handed repression.
Arbitrary arrests and detentions and administrative measures
Since January 2014, Amnesty International has documented the
arbitrary arrest of at least 87 human rights defenders in West and
Central Africa. In 2016 alone, 13 anti-slavery activists in Mauritania
were brought before court on trumped up charges and sentenced to between
three and 15 years in prison. In November last year, an Appeal Court
acquitted and released three of them and reduced the sentence of the 10
In Chad, four pro-democracy activists were arrested in N’Djamena
between March and April 2016 for planning to organise peaceful public
demonstrations against the current president’s bid for re-election for a
fifth term. They were found guilty of ‘incitement to an unarmed
gathering’, and received suspended prison sentences after more than two
weeks in detention.
Several states including Cameroon, Chad, Guinea, Nigeria, Senegal and
Togo introduced legislation which could be used to target human rights
defenders, journalists and whistle-blowers in reprisal for their work,
often in the name of countering terrorism and cybercrime.
In Cameroon, anti-terror legislation originally introduced to respond
to the security threat from Boko Haram, was used to silence civil
society leaders in the English-speaking regions who called for protests
Administrative measures – such as delaying or denying the
registration of NGOs to operate or restricting their funding – have also
been used to prevent the work of human rights defenders. In Togo, for
example, officials refused to deliver registration certificates to a
group of LGBTI activists because they “challenged cultural and social
“Human rights defenders are not enemies of the state; they are
individuals who stand against injustice and take peaceful action to
improve the human rights situation. Without their courage, our world is
less fair, less just and less equal,” said Alioune Tine.
Internet and social media restrictions
Among the emerging trends is the use of new technologies and targeted
surveillance, including online, to threaten and silence activists.
Restrictions on the use of the internet are increasingly being used
across the region. In Gabon, Gambia and the Republic of Congo, access to
the internet was cut off for between two and five days before and after
Presidential elections in 2016, while social media was restricted
around elections in Chad. In the most severe restrictions to date, the
Internet was shut down in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon from
January to April 2017 following protests about the use of French in
courts and schools and demands for greater autonomy.
Many states have passed legislation which restricts internet access
and subjects human rights defenders to online surveillance. For
instance, in Senegal, amendments to the Criminal Code and the Code of
Criminal Procedure empower the authorities to restrict access to
“illicit content” online and to hack into computers without judicial
In Nigeria, the Cyber Crime Act, requires internet service providers
to keep all traffic and other data of subscribers for two years and make
that data available to law enforcement agencies upon request.
The demonization of human rights defenders
Amnesty International urges the authorities in West and Central
Africa to refrain from using language that disparages human rights
defenders including by labelling them “criminals”, “foreign agents”,
“terrorists”, or “undesirables”.
“When they are not threatening or harassing them, governments are
attempting to cultivate open hostility towards human rights defenders by
peddling demonizing rhetoric that portrays activists as threats to
national security,” said Alioune Tine.
“It is a tribute to the brave men and women across the region that in
spite of this continuing repression, they continue to fight for
justice. We call on states to recognize and protect the legitimate work
of those standing up for the inherent dignity and equal rights of all