(Nairobi) – Djibouti’s authorities should impartially investigate alleged mistreatment of a detained former air force pilot and ensure that his due process rights are respected. The authorities have repressed peaceful protests that broke out in response to the pilot’s detention.
Fouad Youssouf Ali, a former lieutenant in Djibouti’s air force, fled to neighboring Ethiopia in late March 2020, apparently to seek asylum. Before leaving, he released a video alleging corruption by a high-ranking military official and clan-based discrimination, and called for an armed revolt against the government. In April, Ethiopia deported him to Djibouti, where he was charged with treason without a lawyer present. In June, Fouad released a video from his cell in Gabode central prison in which he alleged degrading treatment, sparking a public outcry and protest rallies calling for his release.
“Djibouti’s authorities should thoroughly investigate Fouad’s allegations of mistreatment, and ensure that his basic rights are protected,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should not use this case as a pretext to stifle public protest, particularly ahead of national elections.”
Since President Ismael Omar Guelleh came to office in 1999, the Djibouti government has repeatedly clamped down on sporadic public protests and significantly limited media freedoms, as well as freedom of association and peaceful assembly. Restrictions have intensified in the run-up to previous presidential elections. The next presidential elections are expected in 2021.
Djibouti is strategically situated in the Gulf of Aden, and hosts US, Chinese, and French military bases, among others. In a bid to gain a two-year term at the United Nations Security Council in late June, President Guelleh lauded his country’s role in the Horn region in promoting peace. Tensions with Eritrea from a three-day border conflict in 2008, including regarding the fate of Djiboutian prisoners of war, remain unresolved.
Fouad’s relatives told Human Rights Watch he intended to seek asylum in Ethiopia, but he appears to have been summarily deported and detained in isolation at Gabode without prompt access to a lawyer or family visits. Ethiopia should investigate whether authorities there respected Fouad’s right to seek asylum, Human Rights Watch said.
On April 22, Djibouti authorities took Fouad to court, without a lawyer present, and charged him with treason, including relations with a foreign power, Eritrea; defamation of the armed forces; and incitement to hatred and public uprising. The treason charge carries a possible penalty of life in prison. Fouad’s lawyer, Zakaria Abdellahi Ali, told Human Rights Watch that Fouad had been detained for more than the 48 hours permitted under the criminal procedural code before being taken to court, and that he was not allowed to meet with Fouad until May 13. Fouad’s relatives said they only received news of his whereabouts on April 25 and did not see him until June 7.
On June 3, Fouad released a video filmed in his isolation cell in which he describes dire detention conditions and shows that he has a serious skin condition. The video, viewed by Human Rights Watch, shows Fouad in a tiny cell, largely taken up by a latrine, and without a window. The video sparked public outcry and protests in Djibouti City, the capital, including in Balbala on the outskirts of the city, and Ali Sabieh, Djibouti’s second largest city, on June 4 and 5.
Human rights organizations have previously documented inhumane treatment of political detainees in Gabode, including the death in detention in 2017 due to ill health of Mohamed Ahmed, a political opposition member who was being held on political charges.
Fouad’s lawyer appealed to the court for Fouad to be transferred to the hospital or be provisionally released. On June 18, the appeal court rejected the request following a medical assessment by court-appointed doctors, who reportedly concluded that the medical assistance Fouad could receive in detention was adequate.
The authorities have publicly denied Fouad’s claims of ill-treatment. On June 11, the President’s Office accused Fouad of having “staged” his detention conditions. The public prosecutor, Djama Souleiman Ali, told the media that people held in isolation cells have daily access to a courtyard, and that the justice minister had ordered an investigation into the circumstances in which the video was filmed and conditions in the prison.
Fouad’s wife, Samira Djama, told Human Rights Watch that her family has faced ongoing harassment since Fouad fled the country. On March 27, the authorities detained her with two of her children, ages 13 and 16, along with 15 other family members and a neighbor. She said she was held for a week at the central police station and repeatedly questioned about her husband’s whereabouts.
The authorities said that the protests that followed release of the video were “unauthorized” and deployed security forces to disperse them. In Ali Sabieh, the media reported, security forces used live ammunition. The authorities should impartially investigate all reports of excessive and lethal force against protesters, Human Rights Watch said.
The media reported that sporadic protests calling for Fouad’s release have continued. Security forces have detained dozens of protesters, the reports said, including two Voix de Djibouti journalists: Kassim Nour Abar, detained early on June 5 at his home in Ali Sabieh, and Mohamed Ibrahim Waiss, detained on June 7 in the capital. They were held without being taken to court within the mandated 48 hours, then released.
On June 11, the President’s Office said that several people had been arrested during the demonstrations, “including several falsely claiming to be journalists.” Journalists from la Voix de Djibouti, a private outlet established by the head of the opposition party, Movement for Democratic Renewal, have faced repeated intimidation and arbitrary arrests, media reports and the media outlet said.
Before presidential elections in 2011, Human Rights Watch found, the authorities banned all demonstrations and arbitrarily arrested and prosecuted peaceful protesters and opposition leaders.
In late 2015, following the announcement that President Guelleh was running for a fourth term, media and rights groups reported that dozens of opposition supporters who protested the decision were detained. On December 23, 2015, at least 19 people were reportedly killed during a public gathering for a religious festival in Balbala. That December the government passed an emergency law, allowing the Council of Ministers to disband any organization that was deemed a threat to public order.
Djibouti is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits arbitrary detention and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, and protects rights to counsel and a fair trial, and the freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.
“Djibouti’s leadership has sought to gain greater international recognition,” Bader said. “The leadership should start by promoting human rights at home, including by respecting peaceful protest, media freedom, and the rights of detainees.”