Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Population

RIGHTS-TOGO: Plus Ca Change…

Noel Kokou Tadegnon

LOME, Jul 22 2005 (IPS) - The human rights group Amnesty International has issued a report alleging serious human rights violations in Togo during the West African country’s recent elections.

The document, entitled ‘Togo: Will History Repeat Itself?’, was released Wednesday. It accuses the Togolese security forces and pro-government militants of targeting suspected opponents and other citizens in a campaign of extrajudicial executions, torture, rape, kidnappings and arbitrary arrests.

This occurred amidst claims of fraud during the Apr. 24 presidential poll, won by Faure Gnassingbé.

The son of deceased head of state Gnassingbé Eyadéma, Faure Gnassingbé had initially assumed the presidency in February after this father’s death – even though the constitution stipulated that parliamentary speaker Fambare Natchaba was to become president, pending elections. International pressure later forced Gnassingbé to step down, and schedule a vote.

Amnesty claims that while researching abuses in Togo, it "collected many accounts describing how, in the days before and after the presidential election, the security forces and members of the militias close to the RPT (the ruling Rally of the Togolese People, Rassemblement du peuple togolais – RPT) forcibly entered polling stations and the homes of presumed opposition supporters, firing indiscriminately on the people who happened to be there."

After the poll, there appears to have been little improvement in the rights situation.

"It seems to have been decided to attack the homes of presumed opponents in reprisal for the spontaneous demonstrations by opposition supporters protesting against electoral fraud," says the report.

Electoral violence prompted some 30,000 Togolese to take refuge in neighbouring countries, notably Benin and Ghana.

Amnesty based its report on thousands of interviews conducted during May and June with refugees in Benin – compiling a list of 150 alleged abuse victims. But, the rights group cautions that the total number abused persons is likely to be considerably higher, "because many witnesses have described how unidentified bodies were left at the mortuary and bodies were buried without being registered in any hospital or mortuary."

The Togolese government has expressed some scepticism about Amnesty’s findings.

"I recognize that there were certainly violations of human rights, but who violated those human rights?" asked Kokou Tozoun, Togo’s communication minister, Wednesday – this during a meeting with journalists in the capital of Lomé. "Amnesty International did not see fit to finish up its investigation in Togo. It stopped short in a refugee camp."

Claude Vondoly, president of the Lomé-based Togolese Movement for the Defense of Freedom and Human Rights – a group believed to be close to the government – said the report should have analysed the situation in Togo more thoroughly, so as to apportion blame fairly for rights abuses.

"We can’t say the victims were all from one camp and human rights violators were all from the other," he told IPS. "Both government supporters and those of the opposition were victims of this violence, and we don’t understand why Amnesty International limits itself to reporting only the opposition victims." Vondoly’s movement estimates that 105 people – opposition supporters and armed forces included – died during the electoral violence.

Togoata Apedo-Amah, general secretary of the Togolese League for Human Rights, expressed satisfaction with Amnesty’s investigation, saying it corroborated the league’s own findings.

"Amnesty International did a good job, and it allowed us to see that the responsibility of the police (in the violence) is clear," said Apedo-Amah, who is often accused by government of being an opposition supporter.

For its part, Amnesty claims that interviews were carried out in Benin for security purposes. The group said it feared witnesses and the families of abuse victims might be placed in danger by an investigation in Togo.

But, it is not only Togolese authorities that have come under criticism in this week’s report. Amnesty International also points the finger at France, which it has previously condemned for providing military assistance to Togo.

The report claims that an analysis of rubber bullets and teargas grenades used in the capital during the electoral crackdown revealed these objects to have been manufactured in France.

"Amnesty International believes that France should ensure that the security and police equipment it supplies and the training that it provides are not used to violate fundamental rights," says the document.

In a statement Wednesday to journalists in Paris, Cecile Pozzo di Borgo, an assistant spokesperson for France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the country was already working towards respect for human rights in Togo.

Concluding its report, Amnesty called on the Lomé government to release political prisoners and investigate claims of rights abuse – as well as put an end to impunity in the country’s police and military.

It also appealed for the publication of findings made by the United Nations mission that visited Togo, Benin and Ghana in June to investigate electoral violence in Togo. In addition, the watchdog said an international commission of inquiry should also be set up to conduct a more intensive probe in all parts of Togo.

Amnesty fears recent developments "(herald) very grim days ahead" for the country, which was ruled by Eyadema for 38 years before his death earlier this year – and that the new administration risks being a repeat of the old.

"Not since the presidential election in 1998, has repression been so brutal," notes the report. "It shows how determined this family (that of Gnassingbé and Eyadema), which has been in control of the state for nearly four decades, is to hang onto power at any price."

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