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Benin to be in the dock at the UN about the imprisonment of political opponents




As a result of the continued detention of two prominent opposition leaders under very heavy prison terms, the Brussels-based organization Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF) has filed a report with the United Nations ‘Universal Periodic Review’ (UPR) for Benin, highlighting human rights abuses in the country, writes Willy Fautre.

The report focused on the situation of two famous opposition figures Reckya Madougou and Joël Aivo, respectively sentenced to 20 years and 10 years in prison, and expressed concern that they were not included in a list of 17 detainees due to be temporarily released after a 13 June 2022 meeting between President Patrice Talon and Thomas Boni Yayi, former President of Benin (2006-2016).

Joël Aivo

The UPR is a process which involves a review of the human rights records of all UN member states. It aims to improve the human rights situation in all countries and address human rights violations wherever they occur.

Reycka Madougo

The submission by HRWF to the UN’s UPR for Benin included details about the case of Reckya Madougou who was sentenced at the end of 2021 to 20 years in prison for allegedly financing terrorism. She had been arrested in March 2021 accused of wiring thousands of dollars to a military officer for the purpose of killing unnamed authorities. Her candidacy had earlier been rejected by the electoral commission. HRWF went on to detail that Ms Madougou was the leader of the opposition party, Les Démocrates, and a presidential candidate. HRWF’s statement also described Ms Madougou’s civil society campaign — “Don’t touch my constitution” — that rallied against leaders seeking to extend their rule under the guise of constitutional reform. The movement spread across West Africa, gaining her a high profile.

The HRWF report to the UPR also gave details about the case of Joël Aivo and his December 2021 sentencing by the controversial Economic Crime and Terrorism Court (CRIET) to 10 years in prison for allegedly plotting against the state and laundering money. HRWF explained in their submission that Mr Aivo is a law professor who challenged Talon in the April 2021 presidential election. He was held for eight months ahead of sentencing and pleaded not guilty to the aforementioned charges. Mr Aivo himself commented at the time of his sentencing: “It is not for criminal justice to arbitrate on political differences. I have decided to give myself to this country. You are also children of this country. Do as you want with me.” HRWF also mentioned media reports stating that Mr Aivo contracted COVID-19 while in prison due to being confined in a cell with 38 other inmates.

Willy Fautré, Director and Co-Founder of HRWF, commented: “Our organisation has been monitoring the backsliding that has been taking place around human rights in Benin since 2016. We were especially dismayed to see that Reckya Madougou and Joël Aivo were not on the June 2022 list of 17 detainees to be temporarily released. Ms Madougou and Mr Aivo should be fully released immediately. The persecution and detention of opposition figures has no place in a democracy and we are concerned for the welfare of these two politicians.”


Rogatien Biaou (pictured), Benin’s former foreign minister and president of the Alliance Patriotique Nouvel Espoir (New Hope Patriotic Alliance), an opposition party in Benin, welcomed HRWF’s statement to the UPR. "The continued imprisonment of Reckya Madougou and Joël Aivo is completely unjustifiable. It demonstrates President Patrice Talon's determination to suffocate democracy in Benin. Sadly, the detention of political opponents takes place against the backdrop of President Talon's demolition of Benin's other pillars of democracy. Benin has become a country where state violence is used against protestors, the courts are used for political purposes and free speech is under threat. As long as opposition figures are persecuted in the country, no one in Benin can consider themselves free."

HRWF also gave further background in their report about what they considered to be further backsliding in terms of Benin’s commitment to democracy and protecting human rights, explaining that in 2018 Patrice Talon’s government introduced new rules for fielding candidates and raised the cost of registering. The electoral commission, packed with Mr Talon's allies, barred all opposition parties from the parliamentary election in 2019 for allegedly failing to follow the new rules closely enough. This resulted in a parliament made up entirely of Mr Talon’s supporters.  

The HRWF report also referred to huge protests to which security forces responded with live ammunition. Four people were killed and many more injured. The Constitutional Court, headed by President Talon’s former personal lawyer, waved the results through. Amnesty International said post-election “repression reached disturbing levels” after four people were killed during the demonstrations.

The Brussels-based NGO went on to describe how the parliament subsequently changed election laws in such a way that presidential candidates need to have the approval of at least 10% of Benin's MPs and mayors. As parliament and most mayors’ offices are controlled by President Talon, he has control over who can run for president. These changes have drawn condemnation from international observers and led to the United States government partially terminating development assistance to the country.

The report also described how, since coming to power, President Talon has jailed most of his rivals or forced them to take refuge abroad. His former personal lawyer is now in charge of Benin’s constitutional court. Moreover, he created a special court named CRIET (Economic Crime and Terrorism Court) which is instrumentalized by the President to neutralize and prosecute his political rivals. A CRIET judge who fled Benin said to RFI (Radio France International), a French state broadcaster, that the court gets “instructions” from political leaders in some politically sensitive cases.

HRWF sees the persecution of opposition figures as only part of a more general anti-democratic trend which includes the muzzling of the media. They mention that in the most recent Global Press Freedom Index by Reporters sans Frontières, the country has fallen to the 121st place. In 2016, before President Talon took office, Benin was still in 78th place and ten years earlier even in the top 25, one place behind Germany and a few places ahead of the United Kingdom.

In April 2021, Benin’s electoral commission declared incumbent Patrice Talon the winner of the country’s presidential election with 86 percent of the votes in the first round of a ballot boycotted by some opposition parties.

Benin’s presidential elections were widely condemned, with the Economist describing how almost all opposition leaders were blocked from standing, with others exiled. An association of civil society groups, which deployed more than 1,400 election observers, said in its preliminary statement that “attempts to pressurise, intimidate, threaten, corrupt or harass voters were observed across the entire country”.

The findings of the UPR of Benin are expected to be publicly debated at the UN in January 2023.

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