Freedom in the World
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President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo granted amnesty in June 2005 to six Armenian pilots included in the group of 22 people convicted for their alleged involvement in a 2004 coup plot. In September 2005, a military court handed down sentences of up to 30 years to a separate group of Equatorial Guineans for plotting against the government in October 2004. International groups criticized the conduct of these trials, which allegedly included torture of the defendants. The rapid rise in oil revenues has primarily enriched members of Obiang's family, who form the country's ruling elite. During 2005, the government harassed the country's sole opposition leader, and confiscated copies of the opposition's newspaper.
Equatorial Guinea achieved independence from Spain in 1968. It has since been one of the world's most tightly closed and repressive societies. President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo seized power in 1979 by deposing and murdering his uncle, Francisco Macias Nguema. Demands from donor countries for democratic reforms forced Obiang to legalize a multiparty system in 1992, though he and his clique continued to control political power. The 1996 presidential election, won by Obiang, was marred by official intimidation, a near total boycott by the political opposition, and very low voter turnout. The ruling Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea (PDGE) won 75 of 80 seats in similarly flawed parliamentary elections in 1999. Many opposition candidates were arrested or confined to their villages prior to the polls.
Four opposition challengers withdrew from the December 2002 presidential election, citing irregularities. Obiang won a third seven-year term with 99.5 percent of the vote. Following the election, the government announced the formation of a "government of national unity" that brought members of eight small parties into the cabinet. Despite an extensive reshuffle in 2004, key cabinet positions continue to be held by presidential relatives and loyalists.
The PDGE won 68 of 100 seats in the April 2004 parliamentary elections, with allied parties taking 30. The opposition Convergence Party for Social Democracy (CPDS), which complained of numerous irregularities and voter intimidation, won the remaining two seats.
In June 2005, Obiang granted amnesty to six Armenian pilots included in the group of 22 people convicted in November 2004 for their alleged involvement in a coup plot discovered in March 2004. Amnesty International had expressed concern over the likely use of torture in extracting confessions from the defendants, particularly in the case of a German suspect who died in custody. Many of the alleged plotters, some of whom were tried in Zimbabwe, have ties to the defunct mercenary firm Executive Outcomes, founded by apartheid-era South African military officers.
The Equatorial Guinean government accused Severo Moto, an opposition figure living in exile in Spain; South African financier and oil broker Eli Calil; and Sir Mark Thatcher, son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, of being behind the scheme to oust Obiang. As part of a plea bargain, Thatcher testified in a South African court that he had unwittingly helped to bankroll the coup attempt. Moto and eight members of his "government in exile" were tried in absentia and convicted of treason. A separate group of Equatorial Guineans accused of trying to topple Obiang in October 2004 received sentences of up to 30 years in prison in September 2005. According to Amnesty International, all but two of the defendants who appeared in court said they had been tortured. Of the six defendants tried in absentia, three were allegedly held incommunicado in Equatorial Guinea after being abducted from Nigeria and Benin.
Equatorial Guinea is Africa's third-largest oil producer, and per capita gross domestic product is among the highest on the continent. Despite the country's economic windfall from oil, however, there have been few improvements in the country's living standard. The majority of the country's impoverished citizens depend on subsistence agriculture, while ruling elites reap growing financial gain from oil profits. Equatorial Guinea ranked 121 out of 177 countries on the 2005 UN Development Program's Human Development Index.
World Bank programs were cut off in 1993 because of corruption and mismanagement. The government has since attempted to negotiate a "shadow" fiscal management program with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Equatorial Guinea declared its intent to implement the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative in September 2004.
Equatorial Guinea concluded a security agreement with Sao Tome and Principe in August 2005 aimed at guaranteeing the safety of offshore oil rigs, as well as controlling clandestine immigration and drug trafficking and guaranteeing the security of maritime and air traffic.
The UN has since 2004 served as mediator in a dispute between Equatorial Guinea and Gabon over exploration rights in the potentially oil-rich Corisco Bay Islands. The Equatorial Guinean government briefly accused Gabon of providing assistance to the October 2004 coup plotters.
Citizens of Equatorial Guinea cannot change their government democratically, and the country has never held a credible election. President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, whose current seven-year term will end in 2009, holds broad powers and limits public participation in the policy-making process. The 100 members of the unicameral House of People's Representatives are elected to five-year terms but wield little power. Despite Obiang's iron grip over the country, however, members of his Mongomo clan are increasingly divided and compete with each other for political influence and financial gain.
After Obiang's overwhelming but highly irregular electoral victory in 2002, most opposition parties joined a coalition with the ruling party, although several remain officially banned or operate in exile. In June 2005, the government briefly detained and interrogated CPDS secretary-general Placido Miko Abogo on his return from an international conference in Sao Tome and Principe on oil and transparency, allegedly on suspicion of his having had contact with mercenaries.
A U.S. Senate investigation found in July 2004 that at least $35 million has been siphoned from accounts held in the Washington, D.C.-based Riggs Bank by Obiang, his family, and senior officials of his regime. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Justice Department are investigating payments from U.S. oil companies for possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The Riggs account manager for Equatorial Guinea was arrested with his wife in May 2005 after the FBI alleged they tried to move nearly $1 million in fraud proceeds out of the country. Equatorial Guinea ranked 152 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Press freedom is constitutionally guaranteed, but the government restricts this right in practice. The 1992 press law authorizes government censorship of all publications, and nearly all print and broadcast media are state run and tightly controlled. A few private newspapers and underground pamphlets are published irregularly. Criticism of the country's leadership is not tolerated, and self-censorship is widespread. Publications that irk the government are banned from the newsstands without explanation. In June 2005, authorities seized 200 copies of the country's sole opposition newspaper, La Verdad. Equatorial Guinea has one internet provider affiliated with the government telephone monopoly, and there were unconfirmed reports that the government monitored citizens using the internet.
The constitution guarantees religious freedom, and government respect for freedom of individual religious practice has generally improved. The government does not restrict academic freedom, though faculty practice self-censorship.
Freedom of association and assembly is restricted. Authorization must be obtained for any gathering of 10 or more people for purposes deemed political. There are no effective domestic human rights organizations, and the few international nongovernmental organizations operating in Equatorial Guinea are prohibited from promoting or defending human rights. Dozens of opposition activists remain in prison.
Though the constitution provides for the right to organize unions, only the Small Farmers Syndicate has legal recognition. The government has refused to register the Equatorial Guinea Trade Union, whose members carry out activities in secret. The multinational oil industry has attempted unsuccessfully to reduce government control over the industry's hiring process.
The judiciary is not independent, and laws on search and seizure-as well as detention-are routinely ignored. Amnesty International and the International Bar Association allege that the trials for two separate groups of alleged coup plotters were marked by flagrant human rights abuses, including torture and forced confessions. Unlawful arrests are common, and government security forces routinely act with impunity, using torture and excessive force. Civil cases rarely go to trial. A military tribunal handles cases tied to national security. Prison conditions, especially in the notorious Black Beach prison, are often life-threatening.
All citizens are required to obtain permission to travel abroad from the local police commissioner, and some members of opposition parties have been denied this permission. Those who do travel abroad are sometimes subjected to interrogation upon their return.
Obiang's Mongomo clan of the majority Fang ethnic group monopolizes political and economic power to the exclusion of other groups. Differences between the Fang and the Bubi are a major source of political tension and often erupt into violence. Fang vigilante groups abuse Bubi citizens with impunity.
Constitutional and legal protections of equality for women are largely ignored, and violence against women is widespread. Traditional practices discriminate against women, including the practice of primogeniture and polygamy. Few women have educational opportunities or are able to participate in the formal economy or government. Abortion is permitted to preserve the physical health of the mother, but only with spousal or parental authorization.