a decline in freedom of expression as the election period approaches?

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From our correspondent in Abidjan – In Côte d’Ivoire, the arrests and convictions of several opposition activists at the end of February are reigniting the debate on freedom of expression and assembly. A few months before the municipal and regional elections scheduled for the last quarter of 2023, opposition groups and civil society actors denounce attempts at intimidation and attacks on freedom of expression in the country.

On February 24, 2023, about thirty militants of the People’s Partythe afrisCains – Coast d’Ivoire (PPA-CI) aaccompany the general secretary of training at his summons by an investigating judge from Abidjan. Damana Pickass is suspected of being involved in the attack on a military camp in April 2021. AT their arrival, they come face to face to a large police force.

“We got boarded in a brutal way, a policeman was shouting Ramassage them all’, without reason”, says Joachim Zelehi Serikpa, deputy general secretary of the party. Others describe the use of tear gas, acessenés to those who wear caps and scarves bearing the image of Laurent Gbagbo. The former Ivorian president founded this party in October 2021, six months after his return to Côte d’Ivoire after ten years of exile.

The militants of this opposition party are placed in custody, then tried at first instance and sentenced on March 9 to two years in prison. The 22nd March, at the end of an appeal trial which dure dix hours, they get the reprieve. A victory in halftone for Me Sylvain Tapi, one of the four lawyers. “You cannot convict people who have not committed any criminal offence. They have not committed any act likely to disturb public order. That day, iThere was no traffic ban. This is a trial without evidence”, protests the lawyer contacted by France 24.

In addition to these 26 activistsfour supporters of PPA-CI were incarcerated at the end of February. They were arrested for waving Russian flags at a political party rally in Yopougon, opposition stronghold located in northern Abidjan. They were finally released along with the other activists. “It is not an offense to display the flag of a foreign power. There is legal uncertainty around arrest, indictment and release.on”, notice Me Tapi, who denounces an “attempt to intimidate”. Laurent Gbagbo, who met these supporters on the 29th march, do the msame observation : these are measures to “discourage its activists from demonstrating”.

Government firmness

For its part, the government continue d’afficher on firmness. At a point pre16 marsthe spokesperson of the government Amadou Coulibaly described the gathering of supporters of the PPA-CI of “wild” demonstration which has not been declared beforehand to the prefecture. Il rajoust that the supporters met in front of the office of the examining magistrate while an “instruction remains secret”. For him, the militants had nothing to do there and that is enough to justify the force.

Asked about people having waved Russian flags, Amadou Coulibaly did not wish to speak on the issue : “We don’t have apastor particulier and we don’t want to interfere in court decisions because otherwise it’sthey are the same ones who will reproach us for not having a free and independent judiciary.the.”

This reflection is andand barely veiled allusion to the attitude of PPA-CI who, during a press conference in mid-March, had reported “relentless judicial harassment”, a “judicial system that allows itself to be manipulated by the power in place” as well as “d’attacks against party cadres”. Opponents regret notably that Marie-Odette Lorougnon, vice-president of PPA-CIwas threatened by activists pturn overgovernment officials for qualifying “mercenaires” the 46 Ivorian soldiers detained during dix months in Mali.

“In the coast ofIvoirewe are free to express ourselves but not to defame”, warns Abdoul Awassa, at the head of a pro-government citizens’ movement which went to Marie Odette Lorougnon. Contacted by France 24, whoever calls himself a defender of power warns : “Nous are not violent, everyone can express themselves, but we do not tolerate that one discredits the army or the poweroir.”

A “bad sign” sent to the opposition in the run-up to local elections

Less than six months municipal and regional elections, ce regain of tensions between pro-lawere Gbagbo and the supporters of the Ivorian president, Aslowly Ouattara, East taken very seriously by political observersues thes two leaders being at the origin of the electoral crisis having do 3 000 deaths in the country in 2010-2011. Since the return of Laurent Gbagbo, the two leaders seemed to emphasize healing and reconciliation. “Unfortunately, with these arrests, the authorities are sending and wrong signal to the opposition and starts to his make it clear that no criticism will be tolerated”, notes the political scientist Geoffroy Kouaopolitical analyst.

The author of the book “Violelectoral campaigns and apology for impoliticse. FauDoes he despair of the Cote d’Ivoire ?” observes a “legalization of political life, symptomatic of the refusal of democracy”. According to him, by acting in this way, the government is drawing the wrath of public and international opinion while giving at the coast ofIvoire the image of a State of non-droit.

The question of freedom meeting and expression arises Also pour Civil society. In December, around forty doctoral students who demonstrated to denounce precarious working conditions in their field were arrested, imprisoned and finally sentenced to four months in prison suspended for disturbing public order.

Amnesty concern International

Earlier, thn to theout, Pulcheherie Gbalet, a figure in Ivorian civil society, served a sentence of more than five months in prison. She had surrendered in Mali to discuss the fate of military ivorians detained in Bamako and accused of being mercenaries. AT his return, this close to the opposition had been arrested and convicted more than five months in prison for agreement “with the agents of a foreign power likely to harm the military and diplomatic situation of the Côte d’Ivoirena maneuversture to discredit institutions and cause serious disturbances to public order”. months for “public order disturbances”.

Amnesty International regularly denounces these situations. The latest press release, which concerns PPA-CI activists, was published on 13 mars. L’ONG point of arbitrary detentions and restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. “In theory, freedom of expression and demonstration is guaranteed by Ivorian constitutional texts, but in practice, it’s quite the opposite. Whether it is because of Covid-19 or the terrorist threat, there is always a pretext to dissuade Ivorians from demonstrating”, laments Ours Hervé Delmas, executive director of Amnesty Côte d’Ivoire, joined by France 24. The NGO and some political analysts are concerned about the turn that events could take in the run-up to local elections initially planned for the last quarter of 2023the first ballot in which participate a training of Laurent Gbagbo since 2011.

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