Niger: 100-day detention of three activists highlights increasing crackdown on dissenting voices
Human rights defenders languishing in jail for organising a protest to demand an investigation into misuse of funds by Niger’s Ministry of Defence
Amnesty has recorded 27 arrests of activists and dissenting voices in Niger in 2020
The Nigerian authorities must immediately drop charges and release three human rights defenders who demanded an investigation into an alleged misuse of funds by Niger’s Ministry of Defence, Amnesty International said today, as the activists reach 100 days of being held in a Niger prison.
Moudi Moussa, a journalist and trade unionist, Halidou Mounkaila, a leader of the teachers’ union and Maikoul Zodi, the National Coordinator of Tournons la Page, a global movement bringing together actors from African civil societies, were arrested on 15 March following a protest they organised in the capital Niamey. The demonstration called for an investigation into allegations of the misuse of funds revealed by an audit of the contracts at the Ministry of Defense in February. They were arrested on charges of organising an unauthorised gathering, complicity in damaging public property, arson and manslaughter.
The protest was violently repressed by the security forces, leading to their arrests along with four other civil society members. The others were provisionally released on 30 April, whilst Moussa, Mounkaila and Zodi remain behind bars.
Since the beginning of the year, Amnesty has recorded 27 arrests of activists, unionists, journalists and dissenting voices in Niger. Seventeen of them are anti-corruption activists who spoke out about the allegations against the Ministry of Defense.
Samira Daoud, Amnesty International’s Director for West and Central Africa, said:
“For nearly two years, journalists and human rights activists in Niger have been the target of repeated arbitrary arrests as a result of the authorities’ increasing clampdown on dissenting voices.
“These activists have been arrested on mostly trumped-up charges to undermine the peaceful exercise of their human rights and demands for accountability.
“Moudi Moussa, Halidou Mounkaila and Maïkoul Zodi must be released immediately.”
15 March protest
Authorities had decided to ban all protests as a measure to fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. The organisers nevertheless went ahead with the demonstrations and security forces blocked all the roads leading to the planned venue in Niamey.
According to witnesses, the security forces threw tear gas on the roof of the Tagabati market shops causing a fire and at least three individuals died in the process. A dozen people including seven civil society leaders were subsequently arrested.
The arrest and detention of Moudi, Moukaila and Maïkoul point to an alarming deterioration of civil rights and liberties that Amnesty has observed and denounced in Niger in recent years. The charges against them related to complicity in damaging public property, arson and manslaughter, which appear to be fabricated to undermine their work as human rights defenders.
Crackdown on civil rights
The clampdown on civil rights and liberties in Niger has intensified in recent months with a dozen activists, journalists, teachers and human rights defenders arrested or subject to legal proceedings, some based on private conversations held on social media.
Amnesty’s concerns have been reinforced by the adoption of a controversial cybercrime law in 2019, with provisions that may facilitate the violation of freedom of expression or the arbitrary arrest and detention of dissidents. Eight people were arrested between March and April this year under article 31 of the law.
Niger also adopted a new law on the interception of electronic communications on 29 May. It notably allows the executive to decide to initiate surveillance on an individual, a power which should be wielded by a judge or an authority independent from the executive. Amnesty is concerned about the lack of adequate safeguards to prevent the abuse of this new law and to stop the continuation of surveillance when deemed illegal.
On 10 June, journalist and blogger Samira Sabou was arrested following a defamation complaint from the son and chief of staff of the President of Niger. Sabou was charged with “defamation by means of electronic communication” for a Facebook post, and for a comment made on the post by another Facebook user.
She is now in pre-trial detention in Niamey prison where overcrowding and poor conditions are rife, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Samira’s health conditions are also deteriorating since her arrest. If convicted, she could face up to three years in prison and a fine of up to three million CFA (around £4,070).