Leaked images show student protesters locked up in tiny, dark cell
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In Gabon’s capital Libreville, a group of striking university students has been kept locked up in a cell by the military police since Monday. A few of them were briefly released, which allowed them to disseminate photos and videos that they had taken with a mobile phone they had managed to hide. These images show the students cramped together in a dirty, windowless space the size of a closet.
In Gabon’s capital Libreville, a group of striking university students has been kept locked up in a cell by the military police since Monday. A few of them were briefly released, which allowed them to disseminate photos and videos taken with a mobile phone they had managed to hide. These images show the students cramped together in a dirty, windowless space the size of a closet.
On June 11, a group of students taking part in a strike at Omar Bongo University held a rally to explain their grievances to their fellow students. When the police tried to intervene, 21 of the students lined up before them and gave themselves up. They were taken into custody by officers from the military police unit the Direction Générale des Recherches (DGR), and have since been sitting in their dreary cell, waiting to see a prosecutor. Two of them, including our Observer, were freed Wednesday; the rest remain locked up.
The photos they took of themselves in captivity have been circulating on Facebook since Wednesday, infuriating many Gabonese Web users. FRANCE 24 contacted Father Ondo Mintsa, a leading figure of Gabonese civil society, to get his reaction. He said these photos cast light on the government’s “dictatorial methods” and claimed the students that remain in the cell had been “tortured” by DGR officers after these images appeared on the Internet.
[France 24 has tried to reach the DGR as well as the Gabonese Defence Ministry. We will publish their response to these accusations once we receive a reply.]
Students at Omar Bongo University launched their strike in response to reforms enacted in 2010 which continue to cause anger. They are notably asking that the age cut-off for scholarships, now 27, be scrapped. Since January, protesting students and police have repeatedly clashed. The situation has become so tense that last month, the university’s director asked for riot troops to be sent in.
This video was filmed inside the cell.
"There was faeces and urine on the cell's walls. Even criminals do not deserve to be kept there"
Edvine Ballack Obama, 22, is a student at Omar Bongo University. He is one of the 21 strikers who were arrested on Monday. He was released on Wednesday afternoon.
When we arrived at the DGR station, they asked us to undress. At first, I refused, so they slapped me and punched me in the ear. We tried to tell them this sort of treatment was against the constitution, but they just slapped us some more. Then, they took us to this tiny, dark cell. There was faeces and urine on the walls, as well as tons of mosquitoes. Even criminals do not deserve to be kept there.
Two of the students were asthmatic. And because there was no window in the cell, there was no air. They managed to negotiate with the DRG officers to let them out at night. So they were allowed to go back to the campus to sleep at night, but were forced to come back in the morning and spend the day in the cell with us. On the second day, we gave them photographs we had taken with our mobile phones so that they could put them on the Internet and inform people about our situation.
"They asked us: 'What ethnicity are you? Who is behind your group?"
The officers interrogated us individually. Each time, they asked the same questions: “What ethnicity are you?” “Who is behind your group?” They wanted to know if our ethnicity was Fang, because they think we are backed by André Mba Obame [an opposition figure who lost the presidential election in 2009. He is Fang, which is the largest ethnicity in Gabon, and which those in power link to the opposition]. We replied that we were just fighting for students’ rights. They also asked us to sign a statement saying we were putting an end to our protest. None of us signed it.
"Ever since they let me go, the military police officers have been calling me non-stop on my mobile phone"
Tuesday afternoon, I started feeling really awful. I couldn’t breathe, and the disgusting smells made me faint. [Another student was freed a few hours before; according to Edvine, he was having trouble breathing, too.] The others banged on the cell door so that someone would come. The officers took me out of the cell, but then just left me on the ground for nearly an hour. After that, I was taken to an infirmary, where they gave me an intravenous drip for an hour. They then took me back to the cell. Then on Wednesday afternoon, the officers freed me, saying I should go seek medical treatment. However, I don’t have any money to go to the hospital, so I just went back to campus.
Ever since they let me go, the officers have been calling me non-stop on my mobile phone. They leave me messages asking me to come back to the cell. They must be scared that I’m talking about they did to us. I’m not answering my phone, but I’m afraid that they’ll come find me at the university.
A sign in front of the Libreville courthouse reads, "Free the Students".
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Peggy Bruguière.