In Gabon, the human rights project

He didn't know it yet, but Jean-Rémy Yama's prison life ended on the night of August 30, before daybreak, around 4 a

In Gabon, the human rights project

He didn't know it yet, but Jean-Rémy Yama's prison life ended on the night of August 30, before daybreak, around 4 a.m. Lying on the bed of his cell, in the central prison of Libreville, where he had been languishing for eighteen months, the leader of Dynamique unitaire, the main trade union organization in the country, then heard heavy weapons thundering in the distance. “I said to myself: gunshots at that time, there is a nine out of ten chance that it was a coup d’état,” he said, a week later, in the sketchy premises and exiguous from his union. He couldn't imagine what happened next.

Shortly after these nocturnal detonations, “happy jailers” told him the unthinkable. So improbable that the trade unionist deprived of radio and television, thinks of "a manipulation": President Ali Bongo, the man who has held the country for fourteen years, succeeding forty-two years of reign of his father, Omar Bongo, was deposed by a military junta led by the head of the Republican Guard, General Brice Oligui Nguema.

On September 4, the new president of the Committee for the Transition and Restoration of Institutions (CTRI) promised to provide amnesty for prisoners of conscience. Five days after waking up with a start, on the night of August 30, Jean-Rémy Yama was released.

The most famous prisoner of conscience

Incarcerated since February, he was until then the most famous Gabonese prisoner of conscience. We cannot say that the country's jails were filled with them, but over time, dozens of activists or political leaders passed through there for more or less long periods. “Freedom of expression, association and assembly were systematically violated; civic and political space were locked down; justice corrupted by corruption", lists Jeanne Clarisse Dilaba, national coordinator of the coalition of the network of human rights defenders in Central Africa.

In the eyes of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders – a partner of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) – Mr. Yama was a victim of “arbitrary detention and judicial harassment". The president of Dynamique unitaire (confederation of around forty Gabonese trade union organizations) and active member of Tournons la page Gabon, an organization which denounces bad governance, was arrested on February 27, 2022 at Léon-Mba international airport, in Libreville. He was preparing to go to Paris, via Dakar, to have medical examinations. Taken to the premises of “B2”, the general directorate of counter-interventions and military security, the former political police during the time of Omar Bongo, he learned that he was accused of breach of trust in a file, yet closed by the courts, linked to alleged real estate embezzlement dating back to the early 2000s.

“Legally, the offense of opinion does not exist in Gabon, recalls Jean-Rémy Yama who has always denied these accusations. The judges use one article among the hundreds of the penal code to put people on the spot; the objective is obviously not to demonstrate the truth but to silence an opinion leader. The union leader is convinced that the prospect of the presidential election of August 26, 2023 motivated his arrest. "They didn't know how long I was going or what I was going to do, they panicked," he said. "Every election they tried to silence me," he laughs.

Behind bars, already, in 2016

Shortly before the previous election, in 2016, won by dint of cheating by Ali Bongo Ondimba, the union leader close to the opposition had already found himself behind bars. Arrested on July 8, with two of his confederal secretaries, for having “thrown” “stones” at police officers. Which he always denied. He will spend eighty-nine days in prison. "The power of the Attorney General of the Republic is such that he can arbitrarily keep anyone in pre-trial detention for two years, plus one year in pre-trial detention, without trial," adds the trade unionist.

In 2016, behind bars, Mr. Yama did not witness the bloody repression of the protest following the fraudulent re-election of Ali Bongo Ondimba. It resulted in the death of several dozen people. A nominative list of thirty-three deaths in Libreville has been established by human rights organizations. "There were between one hundred and three hundred deaths throughout the country, extrajudicial executions, mass graves...", says Georges Mpaga, president of the Network of Free Civil Society Organizations in Gabon. "No one knows the exact toll, because the authorities never let us investigate seriously," the activist said. He does not exclude that Ali Bongo will, one day, be held accountable before the courts for this. “The case is still pending at the International Criminal Court in The Hague,” he recalls.

The Green Berets of the Republican Guard

However, a major obstacle stands in the way of justice. “This issue will move forward if the transitional authorities demonstrate the political will to shed light,” says Marc Ona Essangui, a figure in Gabonese civil society, environmental defender and campaigner against corruption. Problem: the green berets of the Republican Guard (GR) were at the forefront of the repression. They were notably responsible, on August 31, 2016, for the strafing by helicopter and then the assault launched against the campaign headquarters of Jean Ping, the probable real winner of the 2016 presidential election.

Admittedly, the commanders of the unit responsible for presidential security are no longer the same. Frédéric Bongo Ondimba, in particular, has left. In 2016, the half-brother of the former president was the boss of the general direction of special services (DGSS), the intelligence service of the GR. In this position, this Saint-Cyrien, colonel of the gendarmerie, will be replaced in 2019 by a certain Brice Oligui Nguema. The new strongman in Libreville will immediately become the commander-in-chief of the GR. "How can you imagine him attacking his own corps? Might as well get harakiri! », Slips a personality from civil society.

During their meetings with the new president of the transition, human rights organizations expressed the wish to establish a truth, reconciliation and reparation commission intended to examine the human rights violations committed during the previous regimes. “We were told that this is long-term work to be undertaken once the transition has passed,” reports Georges Mpaga. “It’s a polite refusal,” adds one of his colleagues.