COMMITTEE AGAINST TORTURE HEARS REPLIES OF GABON
9 November 2012
The Committee against Torture this afternoon heard the replies of Gabon to questions raised by Committee Experts on the initial report of that country on how it is implementing the provisions of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Responding to questions raised by Committee members on Thursday, 8 November, the delegation of Gabon, led by Eric Dodo Bounguendza, Director-General for Human Rights at the Ministry of Justice of Gabon, acknowledged that the notion of torture was not defined verbatim in the Gabonese legal framework but Gabon understood and agreed with the concept as expressed in article 1 of the Convention. While it was also true that the 48 hour limit of custody and preventive detention was sometimes overstepped due to resource constraints, this was not a frequent and institutionalised practice.
The delegation of Gabon consisted of representatives from the Ministry of Justice and the Permanent Mission of Gabon to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The Committee’s concluding observations and recommendations on the report of Gabon will be issued towards the end of the session, which concludes on 23 November.
The Committee’s next public meeting will be at 10 p.m. on Monday, 12 November when the Committee will consider the second periodic report of Togo (CAT/C/TGO/2).
Response of the Delegation of Gabon
In response to questions raised by Committee members on Thursday, 8 November, the delegation of Gabon acknowledged that the notion of “torture” was not defined verbatim in the Gabonese legal framework as was the case in the Convention. However, Gabon understood and agreed with the concept expressed in article 1 of the Convention. Each State evolved and the delegation had taken note of this point – should this be among the recommendations of the Committee, the highest authority would be informed of this proposal.
Today, one could no longer refer to the draft law on the abolition of the death penalty, the delegation said, underlining that this law had been adopted by Parliament in 2010. While the death penalty was no longer practiced in Gabon since that piece of legislation had entered into force two years ago, criminal reclusion in perpetuity could still be handed down on perpetrators of crime.
Turning to the functioning of the Gabonese judiciary, the delegation said several texts had been updated in recent months, staff had been trained at the national magistrate training school, and the judiciary chart had been reorganised. These and other measures would contribute to a better-performing and more independent judiciary. Ills such as corruption were decreasing as the superior magistrate councils now considered cases of indiscipline, which had not been the case in past years. Cases of corruption were rare today and faulty magistrates were brought before a superior magistrate council. Important progress had also been made in terms of gender equality in the judiciary – almost 40 per cent out of some 500 magistrates were women and several women held very high-level positions. The Constitutional Court, for instance, was headed by a woman.
It was true that the 48 hour limit of custody and preventive detention was sometimes overstepped due to resource constraints, but this was not a frequent and institutionalised practice. The Public Prosecutor strictly monitored that these time limits were respected. Confessions and other types of proof obtained under torture could not be used by judges and people lacking funds were appointed a lawyer when brought before a court.
As far as the legal protection of minors was concerned, Gabon had adopted a new law in 2010 to provide minors with a special custody regime and enable a waver for the common law regime. Also, while the age of majority currently stood at 18 years of age, it would be raised to 21 years.
Turning to the Committee’s questions on refugees, the delegation said Gabon was a party of the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa and had made efforts to host peoples of Africa and from around the world on its territory, in keeping with the commitments undertaken at the international level. At the end of 2010, Gabon had taken in 13,000 refugees and asylum-seekers from 25 countries. Congolese refugees had arrived between 1997 and 2003. Given the new stability in their home country, a tripartite decision had subsequently been reached between Gabon, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Congo, leading to the voluntary repatriation of these refugees. The departures had been accompanied to ensure appropriate conditions and no Congolese refugees and asylum-seekers had been expelled. Throughout the process, Gabon had been careful to protect the refugees and asylum-seekers and to apply the relevant texts.
As far as the clandestine foreigners in Minkebé were concerned, the delegation underscored that Gabonese law provided for the removal of these people, as was the case for all foreigners who threatened public order or national security. These foreigners had continued to pillage the national resources in the region in a highly professional manner in spite of a number of complaints and the warnings issued by Gabonese authorities. In total, some 4,700 people from 14 different nationalities had engaged in fraudulous exploitation in this region. These people had been expelled from the region in June 2011 to put an end to the illegal exploitation of gold and wood and ivory trafficking.
The delegation said the central prison in Libreville had been built before 1960, that was, before the country’s independence. At that time, the prison only had 600 inhabitants; today it counted about 1,600 detainees. This had prompted authorities to build new prisons meeting modern standards, including in the country’s second city, while also planning to improve existing buildings. Although Gabon recognised that more should be done, measures had been taken to improve the conditions in prisons. Visits to prisons were also important in this context, leading to progress in the prison environment.
Human trafficking and trafficking in children in particular was a focus of attention of the Committee, the delegation noted. Gabon was considering aligning criminalization in trafficking in children with international practices. This was why the visit of the Special Rapporteur this year was a considerable contribution to Gabon which allowed it to combat the scourge. The recommendations made to Gabon in that regard were looked at very thoroughly and Gabon was linked to several States through mutual aid conventions.
As far as so-called “ritual crimes” were concerned, the delegation said these were not part and parcel of the traditions of the people of Gabon. It was the importing of these practices which had tarnished Gabon’s image. The head of State had clearly criticised this behaviour, saying justice must come down very hard on those committing such crimes. This had been made very clear in the media to ensure awareness-raising and culprits who had committed this crime had mostly been given life sentences before the courts. Investigations had been carried out and sanctions handed down, the delegation said, unlike what had been said here and elsewhere.
Addressing the Committee’s questions and concerns about the national human rights commission, the delegation said so far the commission had no headquarters and its operating budget was still insufficient. Also, it had simply informed the International Criminal Court of its existence without expressing a request for accreditation. There were problems, certainly, but these had been recognised, and there had even been a meeting with the head of Government to discuss them. The Committee would be kept informed on this subject.
Indigenous people accounted for 1 per cent of the population in Gabon, the delegation explained, underlining that the Government had committed itself to better promoting their integration. Since the colonial period, these people had been assessed very negatively and this had unfortunately persisted to the extent that such people themselves subscribed to negative stereotypes. Nonetheless, the trend was nowadays also reversing; thanks to their knowledge of nature, indigenous people could heal diseases, for instance, and several pygmies were successful in Gabonese society. Others, unfortunately, were still bound by old stereotypes, with indigenous Members of Parliament hiding their origins. In any case, State policies were not discriminatory against indigenous people.
Follow-Up Questions from Experts
ESSADIA BELMIR, Committee Rapporteur for the report of Gabon, praised the way in which the delegation had responded to the questions of the Committee even though she did not agree with a number of points. Coming back to issues pertaining to the definition of torture, the delegation had been very sincere. Efforts to include a definition in line with article 1 of the Convention were indeed very important.
Turning to the place that the Convention should hold within domestic law, Ms. Belmir asked why Gabon did not wish to directly refer to the Convention and state that it had been ratified and that it was part and parcel of the provisions of national legislation. Judges must be encouraged to make reference to it – what was required as a norm so that it could be taken into consideration? The provisions of the Convention were important, but the Convention in itself must also be taken into account by judges.
The Rapporteur noted that magistrates were trained at the national school, but no details had been provided regarding the curriculum, what topics were being discussed, and what the specific features of the training of magistrates were.
Ms. Belmir was pleased to hear that the bill on the protection of minors had entered into force. Her concern was, however, that Gabon must also think about other, alternative solutions to detention.
The delegation did provide some clarification regarding the Congolese refugees but more information would be appreciated, said Ms. Belmir. She would also like to know whether any complaints had been launched and whether things happened in the right circumstances or whether there had been any problems. And had there been any appeals or follow-up to the case of the Minkébé clandestine people?
Trafficking in children was a problem, as stated in the report. The Special Rapporteur had voiced concerns and she was grateful that these had been taken on board by Gabon. It would further be good to know whether interrogation methods were appropriate for children and the means available, said Ms. Belmir, adding that the videotaping of interrogations was certainly a keyword in this regard.
SATYABHOOSUN GUPT DOMAH, Committee Co-Rapporteur for the report of Gabon, said he had asked who had been trained regarding the provisions of the Convention, in what fashion, and whether there had been general dissemination of the content of the Convention. He had not heard sufficient responses to these questions. The implementation of article 10 must include medical staff, civil servants and anyone involved in managing the custody, questioning and treatment of prisoners, underlined the Co-Rapporteur.
Mr. Domah congratulated Gabon on the number of laws Parliament had passed. The State party had mentioned at least 150 laws, but laws were not an aim in themselves; this well-constructed work must not be fruitless, it must lead to prevention and combating of torture. It was also very important that there was a database to correct things if necessary and to ensure proper computerization.
The delegation should provide the Committee with more information on how the rights of victims of torture were being ensured. Had the concepts of compensation, reparation and reintegration been understood and incorporated into Gabon’s legal system, the Co-Rapporteur enquired?
Another Committee member expressed concern at the practice of female genital mutilation in Gabon. Experts asked whether civil society was represented in the national human rights commission and how rural areas were taken into account in plans for constructing new prisons and improving existing ones. Several Committee members also said they were concerned about the power availed to the judiciary police in terms of the deprivation of liberty in custody.
Experts said they had not heard any responses as to whether the Istanbul Protocol was part of the curriculum of doctors and staff dealing with detainees and asked how orders from hierarchical superiors which involved torture were dealt with.
Response by the Delegation
Responding to these and other questions and comments, the delegation said when a child began to walk, it always fell again. It was after repeated falling that the child would eventually walk, with the support of its parents. In other words: Gabon’s initial report was a starting point in its fight against torture and would help ensure that the child would not be falling again.
The delegation had acknowledged that the legal framework did not include a word-for-word definition of torture. However, the process initiated in Gabon involved the review and revision of various instruments, including the Criminal Code. Gabon would be cautious and vigilant so as to remind the members of the relevant commission that they take into account not only the remarks made by the Committee but also the basic principles enshrined in the Convention. Hopefully when a Gabonese delegation came before the Committee the next time, these issues would not need to be mentioned again.
The Committee had also referred to the possibility of judges implementing the Convention directly. The head of delegation agreed with the comment which had been made and said Gabon would seize the opportunity of the revision of its laws to incorporate this aspect.
Access to the national judiciary school was only open to holders of a Master’s degree, the delegation went on to say. Training courses lasted for a period of two years and once that had been completed, continuous training was imparted to judges to keep them updated regarding new practices.
Returning to the issue of Congolese refugees, the delegation said it must be acknowledged that the entire process was based on a tripartite decision. A Congolese delegation had visited Gabon to prepare the return and vice versa. At every stage of the process, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees ensured that procedures were being upheld. Some refugees had chosen to stay in Gabon, in keeping with the law, and had obtained resident permits and worked in Libreville and elsewhere.
Apart from the commitment to building new prisons, Gabon also had a programme for renewing existing prisons, the delegation went on to say, including in more far-flung areas of the country. The programme was already scheduled and would cover all provinces, in addition to the building of new prisons.
Female genital mutilation was a fashion imported to Gabon, the delegation went on to say. People may have explained to young girls that if they wanted to have a well-off husband, or if they wished to be admired by wealthy and elder men, they must be excised. For these reasons – coupled with a degree of naivety – some girls may engage in female genital mutilation. However, this was a voluntary practice; the girls were not being forced, they went to practitioners themselves. As this was nonetheless a clear depravation, the Government had adopted a law. Since the adoption and entering into force of the law, the practice had become rarer and rarer.
As to whether the national human rights commission included representatives of civil society, the head of the delegation said such members were not predominant in the commission but representatives from various faith-based organizations and non-governmental organizations were indeed part of the commission.
Information pertaining to the other questions and issues raised by the Committee would be provided to the Committee in writing at a later stage, the delegation said in concluding.
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