- Six detainees allegedly tortured while in custody
- Overuse of pre-trial detentions and violation of fair trials
- Dire conditions of detention aggravated by COVID-19
- Progress noted in investigations into electoral violence
Hundreds of people in Côte d’Ivoire are languishing in dire conditions in prison after being arrested during violence and election-related protests last year, including many who are in pre-trial detention with limited access to lawyers, Amnesty International said on Thursday.
The organization said it interviewed 52 people during a mission in Côte d’Ivoire last month, including former detainees, families of detainees, lawyers, victims of violence and activists. Researchers also met with authorities to assess the judicial response to the protests and violence that occurred between August and November 2020, surrounding the presidential election in October.
At least 300 people including activists, protesters, opposition supporters, and alleged perpetrators of violence from across the political spectrum have been arrested and detained. It was not possible to ascertain the exact number of people currently in detention in the context of these events as the authorities did not provide this information, and Amnesty delegates were not allowed to visit the prisons despite a formal request.
“Detainees are suffering dire conditions in already overcrowded prisons. Many of them have limited access to lawyers or medical treatment, and current COVID-19 restrictions impede visits from their families. They must be treated humanely and must be able to communicate with their families and lawyers,” said Samira Daoud, Amnesty International West and Central Africa Director.
“We call on authorities in Côte d’Ivoire to put an end to the systematic use of pre-trial detention, especially, to immediately and unconditionally release those arbitrarily detained and to expedite proceedings for the other detainees in due respect of the rights of the defense.”
Amnesty International welcomes the progress that has been made in investigating the violence that raged between supporters of the ruling and the opposition parties in many towns, as families of victims of killings during such violence are still in need of justice, truth and reparations. The delegation noted that investigations are ongoing, and some arrests have already been made.
However, the organization documented several human rights violations linked with the judicial process of protesters and other people, including arbitrary arrests, systematic pre-trial detention, lack of legal assistance, allegations of torture or other ill-treatment, and poor detention conditions.
In August 2020, demonstrations were called by opposition parties to denounce President Alassane Ouattara’s candidacy for a third term. From that point on, many people were arbitrarily arrested, including opposition members and civil society activists, for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
Although some people have since been released after having spent days, weeks, or months in detention, many remain behind bars. Among them is Pulchérie Edith Gbalet, the president of social justice organization Alternative Citoyenne Ivoirienne (ACI).
Pulchérie was arrested on 15 August 2020 by masked individuals after she called for peaceful demonstrations. She was charged with compromising public order, participation in an insurrectionary movement, undermining the state’s authority, willful destruction of public properties, and causing a gathering.
Three of her colleagues, Gbaou Gedeon Junior, Kouakou N’Goran Aime Cesar and Djehi Bi Cyrille were arrested on the same charges. They all remain in detention at the MACA central prison in Abidjan.
“Pulchérie Edith Gbalet, her three colleagues and other people arbitrarily detained must be immediately and unconditionally released. They must be allowed to return to their family safely and be able to continue with their legitimate activist work,” said Michèle Eken, Amnesty International West Africa researcher.
The organization documented several cases of people who were arbitrarily detained, including many who did not participate in the protests.
One businessman was arrested in November 2020 on his way to his office, which is near the headquarters of an opposition party. He is still detained at MACA after being charged with public disorder.
Another detainee was arrested in August 2020 while going to a pharmacy on a day that protests were occurring and has been in pre-trial detention ever since.
Systematic pre-trial detention and inadequate legal assistance
Many of those arrested in connection with the protests and violence have been in pre-trial detention for months. Many did not have access to a lawyer from the moment they were detained and appeared in front of the investigating judge without a lawyer to dispute the charges and the need for detention.
“Pre-trial detention should be the exception, not the norm. It should never be used as an advance punishment for people who have not been – and may never be- found guilty. It is important to respect the presumption of innocence and the right to fair trial of all people subject to criminal charges, including the right to have a lawyer,” said Samira Daoud.
Allegations of torture
Six individuals were allegedly forced to accept the charges against them after being subject to torture or other ill-treatment.
One man who was arrested on 31 October 2020 spent nearly a month at the Directorate for the Surveillance of the Territory (DST) where he and five others were allegedly tortured with power lead and tasers, then beaten with machetes, before signing the statements that they were not allowed to read. They were then transferred to MACA.
A youth leader of an opposition party was arrested in November, handcuffed, and taken to the DST where he was allegedly punched and beaten before being charged with eight counts, including disturbing public order and conspiracy against the state.
Another man who was arrested on 18 October spent six days at the DST where he was allegedly beaten with machetes and power leads.
“Authorities in Côte d’Ivoire must immediately launch independent, impartial and effective investigations into allegations that some detainees were tortured and threatened while in custody,” said Michèle Eken.
Dire prison conditions
Lawyers and authorities told Amnesty International that most detainees, including those arrested in other towns, are being held at MACA prison.
As of January 2020, the prison held 7,782 people many of them pre-trial detainees, far beyond its capacity for 1,500. Eyewitnesses described how the MACA has become overcrowded following the wave of arrests between August and November last year.
As well as severe overcrowding, they described unsanitary conditions that led to illnesses like colds and bird flu. At least one detainee who arrived at MACA in August tested positive for COVID-19. Another was not allowed to shower for three days.
In the women’s section of the prison, former detainees said they showered, washed dishes and did laundry in the same hot and mosquito-filled cell.
Ill-health made worse by lack of medical care
At least one person has died after being held at MACA.
Aristide Ahui died on 9 March 2021 after he was transferred to the hospital. He had been arrested on 29 October 2020 for undermining the state authority while he was on his way to get drinks and had then been detained at MACA prison pending his trial. His right foot was paralyzed, and his health quickly deteriorated while he was in pre-trial detention.
According to information received by Amnesty International, Aristide Ahui’s condition got so bad that he was unable to speak or move. He was transferred to the hospital once early in February this year then sent back to prison where his condition deteriorated.
Following pressure from several figures, Aristide Ahui was hospitalized again at ‘’CHU Cocody’’ hospital at the end of February, where he died on 9 March. The hospital bills were covered by his family.
A family member told Amnesty International:
“After his arrest I was unable to visit him due to COVID-19 restrictions. They searched the house. He did not have a lawyer. He was not sick before his arrest. I was told he first suffered from tuberculosis. He was chained to the hospital bed.”
Another detainee had been arrested on 13 August along with dozens of others, charged with public disorder and sent to MACA prison. He was diagnosed with a heart condition before being arrested and has been unable to see a heart specialist since his detention. He was sent to the hospital when he arrived at the prison as he could not breathe well due to chest pain. He was given a weeklong treatment of antibiotics, which helped him feel a bit better but he later relapsed.
“As prison overcrowding worsens, and amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we reiterate our call on authorities to ensure more people are released, in particular detainees with underlying medical conditions, in accordance with the recommendations of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights,’’ said Samira Daoud.
“Authorities should ensure that pre-trial detention is only used as a measure of last resort.”