Last January, Equatoguinean security forces went into neighboring Benin and kidnapped four long-time refugees, political exiles from Equatorial Guinea. The government didn’t admit that it held the men until this month, when they were brought out for trial on charges of treason and attempted assassination of the president in connection with a February 2009 armed raid on the Presidential Palace.
With breath-taking dispatch, the four men—José Abeso Nsue, Manuel Ndong Anseme, Alipio Ndong Asumu, and Jacinto Michá Obiang—were tried, sentenced, and executed. Everything was over in less than 10 days.
On August 22, the court handed down its capital sentence, and within an hour, the men were executed. Mr. Abeso Nsue reportedly asked to see his family before execution, but was dead by the time his wife and son got to the prison. Military tribunals in Equatorial Guinea do not provide for any rights of appeal.
According to Amnesty International, the military officers assigned to represent the four refugees had no legal training. Exile opposition sources note that when highly regarded Equatoguinean human rights lawyer Fabián Nsue volunteered to defend the men, the tribunal refused. The military court reportedly relied on confessions extracted under torture.
This was not the first time Equatoguinean forces kidnapped political dissidents from foreign countries. Amnesty International reported on 12 such kidnappings, in Nigeria, Gabon, Benin, and Cameroon, from 2004 to 2008.
Only a month before the latest kidnappings—possibly even as the crime was being planned—the UN Human Rights Council concluded its Universal Periodic Review of Equatorial Guinea’s human rights practices, issuing a draft report on December 11, 2009. The report included earnest-sounding responses from Equatorial Guinea’s diplomats, who insisted that the human rights situation was improving, but also acknowledged that “a lot still needs to be done.” Surprising many observers, the thirteen-member EG delegation accepted 86 wide-ranging recommendations from the UPR working group, including important commitments to:
- Thoroughly investigate all reports of abductions and introduce a registry of prisoners available to the public
- End arbitrary arrests and detention and the practice of secret detention
- End the torture and other mistreatment of detainees
- Disallow confessions obtained through torture and ensure all allegations of torture are properly investigated and those responsible held accountable
- Bring the organization, functioning, and competence of military tribunals into conformity with international principles
There can be little doubt that this proceeding had—at least—President Obiang’s okay. As the US Department of State reports, although the constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary in Equatorial Guinea:
the government [does] not respect this provision in practice, and the judiciary [is] not independent, according to UN officials and local and international human rights advocates. Judges serve at the pleasure of the president and [are] appointed, transferred, and dismissed for political as well as competency reasons. Judicial corruption [is] widely reported, and cases [are] sometimes decided on political grounds….The president appoints the members of the Supreme Court, who reportedly took instructions from him. The Supreme Council of the Judicial Power appoints and controls judges. President Obiang is president of the Supreme Council, and the president of the Supreme Court is the vice president of the Supreme Council.
“Evaluate us by our actions…and not according to the flow of news from negative sources,” he pleaded in June.
As part of a global charm campaign, Obiang is paying lobbyist/adviser (and former Clinton aide) Lanny Davis a million dollars a year. And EG’s $55,000-a-month PR firm Qorvis seems to be issuing upbeat press releases almost weekly: “Equatorial Guinea President Pledges Environmental Conservation”; “Equatorial Guinea Advances Public Health Through Education”; “Equatorial Guinea Sponsors National Literary Prize Contest to Promote Culture and Literacy in Society.”
Nevertheless, much of the news this year has not been so sunny. In April, Equatorial Guinea got the boot from the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative for failing to meet minimum benchmarks for revenue transparency. Barely three months later, Obiang’s effort to buy respectability blew up in his face when global protest about his regime’s poor governance record and alleged corruption forced UNESCO to suspend the $3 million UNESCO-Obiang life sciences prize he had pledged to fund.
Despite the best efforts of Obiang and his public relations team, this week’s sordid saga of cross-border kidnapping, a kangaroo trial, and high-speed executions shows that Obiang has only contempt for international law and justice and for the rights of his own citizens. He takes his own solemn promises to reform no more seriously than anyone else.