Benin: Crackdown on protests and wave of arrests fuel tense election period
The wave of arbitrary arrests of political activists and journalists, and the crackdown on peaceful protests, have reached an alarming level in Benin, Amnesty International said ahead of the country’s parliamentary elections on Sunday.
Since February, security forces have dispersed peaceful protests using tear gas and batons, and arrested opposition officials. At least one person died during clashes between protesters and members of the security forces in February in the northern town of Kilibo. This follows the Electoral Commission’s decision to authorize only two political parties - both from the presidential camp- to stand in the elections and to exclude all opposition candidates’ lists. Local authorities have introduced blanket bans on protests in the run up to the elections, including in the town of Parakou and the departments of Collines and Zou.
“The growing wave of arrests and detentions in Benin is extremely troubling, particularly in the context of elections. Banning peaceful protests and detaining those who speak up against the exclusion of opposition parties from the legislative election will only fuel political turmoil,” said François Patuel, Amnesty International’s West Africa researcher.
“The authorities need to ensure that rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly are upheld. Security forces must refrain from using force against peaceful protesters in any circumstances.”
Amnesty International has documented at least three instances where security forces have repressed peaceful protests organized by opposition parties ahead of the parliamentary elections. These took place on April 1, 4 and 19 respectively when security forces, including police, used tear gas, batons and compressed air launchers to disperse opposition gatherings. Members of the military armed forces and of the police deployed at demonstration sites were carrying firearms.
On 19 April, the security forces fired tear gas on two of Benin’s former Presidents, Nicéphore Soglo and Thomas Boni Yayi, and the eldest member of Parliament, 83-year-old Rosine Vieyra Soglo, as they were addressing protestors at a demonstration site in the capital Cotonou.
Several individuals were arrested in the context of the protests, including political leaders. Julien Agossou Bodé an opposition figure was arrested on 19 April and charged with inciting violence for a video he posted on social media. He was released on bail on 23 April pending his trial on 6 May.
Yibatou Sani Glélé, a member of the opposition Democratic Renewal Party (PRD in French) and MP in the current National Assembly was arrested with another member of her party at a gathering with women at the Ouando Market in the southern city of Porto Novo on 23 April.
They were peacefully protesting the exclusion of the PRD from the legislative elections. The police seized their placards and speaker. They were detained for six hours and charged with “holding an unauthorized gathering” and “incitement to hold an unauthorized gathering”. They were released on bail and are expected before court on 6 May.
Amnesty International considers requirements of prior authorization to hold assemblies and the criminalization of peaceful protest to be in violation of international human rights law and standards.
Journalists have also paid a high price with arrests and intimidation hanging over their head. On 18 April, the managing editor of “Nouvelle Economie” newspaper, Casimir Kpédjo was arrested at his house. His lawyer told Amnesty International that the arrest took place following a complaint from the State Judicial Officer, who represents the state of Benin before the courts, for a post on Facebook in which he claims that the country has a debt of nearly 725 million USD (428 CFA billion) in breach of the 2019 finance law. He was charged with publishing “false information”. He was released on bail on 23 April but is still facing trial.
Ignace Sossou, a journalist with the news website beninwebtv.com is being prosecuted for publishing “false information” over two articles he posted on tax evasion in Benin. He was summoned three times by the Central Office for the Repression of Cybercriminality and will be standing trial on 10 June.
Benin has adopted several repressive laws in recent years which are now being used to crackdown on dissent, including a Code of digital law adopted in 2017 which criminalizes the publishing of false information, press offenses online and incitement to rebellion online.
The country’s Penal Code, adopted in 2018, criminalizes “offenses against the symbols and values of the State, the Republic, communities and religions”, “unarmed gatherings that could disturb public tranquillity” and “provocations to unarmed gathering”.
In the same year, the National Assembly also adopted a law on the right to strike which restricts the maximum duration of a strike to 10 days per year for all civil servants, local government personnel, public and private-sector workers, and parastatal employees. The law bars health-sector staff from striking.
“We call on the authorities to take all appropriate measures to ensure that the election is held in a climate that is free from violence and allow all people to express their views and stop the intimidation of journalists which has a chilling effect on press freedom,” said François Patuel.