to President Guelleh
Excellency Ismaël Omar Guelleh
President of Djibouti
c/o Embassy of Djibouti
1156 15th St., NW, Suite 515
Washington DC 20005
Dear President Guelleh:
Human Rights Watch requests
that you unconditionally release from detention journalist Daher Ahmed Farah,
a political opposition leader who has been convicted of the crime of defamation
for criticizing the army chief of staff in an article in his newspaper, Le
Renouveau. We further request that the government lift its 3-month ban on
publishing Le Renouveau and annul the enormous fine imposed on Farah.
In addition, Human Rights
Watch urges repeal of the law making defamatory statements a criminal offense.
Farah was arrested on April 17 for an article alleging that the army chief
of staff was making improper use of a troupe of military entertainers and
was using his position for political ends. This is a matter of personal reputation
to which no criminal penalty should apply.
In addition to his jail
sentence, the appellate court has ordered Farah to pay civil damages of 13
million Djibouti francs (around U.S.$74,000) and imposed a criminal fine of
1 million Djibouti francs (around U.S.$5,500). These are large sums in a country
where the average per capita income is less than U.S.$800. The court also
banned publication of Le Renouveau for three months.
Farah’s conviction violates
international law protecting freedom of expression. Article 19 of the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides: "Everyone shall
have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom
to . . . impart . . . information and ideas of all kinds . . . in writing
or in print." Djibouti acceded to the ICCPR on February 3, 2003.
The press must be entitled
to the greatest protection when it covers matters of public interest. The
Siracusa Principles on the Limitations and Derogation Provisions of the ICCPR,
which provide authoritative guidance on the covenant, say that even in times
of national emergency, the provision in Article 19 that permits restricting
freedom of expression to protect the reputation of others "shall not
be used to protect the state and its officials from public opinion or criticism"
Likewise, the Johannesburg
Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information
provide that "No one may be punished for criticizing or insulting …
public officials … unless the criticism or insult was intended and likely
to incite imminent violence (Principle 7).
Criminal defamation laws
have a profound and chilling effect on media freedom and democratic debate.
Criminal sanctions are disproportionate and unnecessary, especially when used
to defend the reputation of high government officials. In order for the democratic
system to function, criticism of public figures must be robust and unfettered
by the threat of incarceration. If protection is necessary — in extreme circumstances
— it can be provided by means far less oppressive than criminal sanctions.
In Farah’s case, it appears
that the anti-defamation law is being enforced principally to silence political
dissent. Farah is not only editor of Le Renouveau, he is a political rival,
as head of the Mouvement Pour le Renouveau Democratique. Le Renouveau is one
of the few publications outside the monopoly that the government and its allies
exercise over the written and broadcast press in Djibouti.
The misuse of the defamation
law to punish political opponents is reflected in the punitive and vindictive
conditions of confinement to which the prison authorities have subjected Farah
since early April.
We understand that Farah
is being held in a tiny 2.5 by 1.5 meter cell (number 13) at Gabode Prison.
A toilet takes up half the space. When a prisoner sits against one wall, his
feet touch the opposite wall. The cell is broiling at all times because of
sunlight reflected from a nearby wall. The water ration is inadequate, and
the cell is fly-infested during the day and mosquito-infested at night. We
understand that Daher Ahmed Farah is isolated from all human contact; the
nearest inhabited cell is 500 meters away and the nearest human presence is
a guard on a prison roof, 20 meters away.
Daher Ahmed Farah was
kept in preventive detention in these abysmal conditions for six weeks pending
trial, until a magistrate ordered his release on June 3, 2003. Three days
later he was re-arrested and returned to cell 13.
On June 23, Farah was
acquitted by Djibouti’s criminal trial court and again released. On appeal
by the government, the appellate court on July 9 sentenced him to six more
months of incarceration, three of which are suspended. The prison authorities
immediately confined Farah in cell 13 again.
July and August are the
hottest months in Djibouti and daytime temperatures in the cell will climb
above 40 degrees centigrade.
Farah’s conditions of
confinement are inhumane by any standard, and violate the ICCPR, article 7,
which states: "No one shall be subjected to . . . cruel, inhuman or degrading
treatment or punishment." Nor do they conform to the U.N. Standard Minimum
Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.
Use of the criminal justice
system to jail an opposition journalist and political leader for the peaceful
expression of opinion and the closure of his newspaper, not only violates
international law, but can only serve to undermine the democratic ideals enshrined
in the Djibouti Constitution and to threaten the legitimacy of state institutions.
Mr. President, you have
the power to undo the damage caused by unwarranted use of the criminal process
and by the unnecessarily cruel enforcement of a sentence. We ask that you
exercise those powers without delay, to release Daher Ahmed Farah, to cancel
the fine awarded, and to promptly restore the right of Le Renouveau to publish.
Very truly yours,