- The Djiboutian government has been urged to "immediately release" journalist and opposition party leader Daher Ahmed Farah from prison. Mr Farah earlier this month was sentenced to prison, a large fine and banned from publishing his newspaper.
The US-based group Human Rights Watch today wrote an open protest letter to the President of Djibouti, Ismael Omar Guelleh, urging him to release Mr Farah, cancel the fine levied against him and allow him to resume publishing his newspaper. The editor and party leader had been found guilty in defamation.
- Farah's conviction violates international law protecting freedom of expression, said Peter Takirambudde of the US group. "It is disappointing that a country that so recently promised to uphold international standards has violated them so blatantly."
Djibouti's constitution guarantees freedom of the press, and the ountry just in February 2003 became a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects freedom of expression.
Mr Farah has been in and out of jail since April for publishing an article that criticised the Djibouti army's chief of staff, General Zakaria Cheik Ibrahim. Several articles in his newspaper 'Le Renouveau' had urged the General not to use the army for ruling party purposes and carrying out politically-motivated dismissals.
The defamation case also caused the human rights group Amnesty International to protest earlier this month. "Public officials who consider themselves defamed have the right of reply and if that is insufficient they can legitimately resort to legal actions to defend their reputation," the group said in a statement. "But this should not involve detention by the police, arbitrary refusal of bail, state prosecution and prison sentences."
The editor and party leader is now being held in solitary confinement in a small cell with scant water rations in temperatures that top 40 degrees Centigrade, according to Human Rights Watch.
He was acquitted of the defamation charge at trial, but the verdict was reversed on appeal. In addition to his prison term, the appellate court ordered Mr Farah to pay civil damages of 13 million Djibouti francs (65,000 euros) and a criminal fine of 1 million Djibouti francs (about 5,000 euros).
- These are huge sums in a country where the average per capita income is less than US$ 800, the human rights group added.
This was also noted by the Paris-based media watchdog group Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) earlier this month, which "voiced its outrage" against the arrest of Mr Farah. "How will a small newspaper selling just a few hundred copies be able to find more than 65,000 euros? asked RSF's Robert Ménard. "The authorities know very well this is the way to silence a newspaper that bothers them."
Mr Farah is also President of the Movement for Democratic Renewal and Development, an opposition political party. Besides, he is editor and publisher of 'Le Renouveau', a weekly newspaper that is one of the few media outlets in Djibouti not owned or controlled by the government or its allies.
Because the government and its allies occupy all seats in the national assembly, Djibouti's few independent newspapers are the only available forums for expressing political dissent.
Human Rights Watch sent a letter today to Djibouti's president, Ismael Omar Guelleh, urging Mr Farah's immediate and unconditional release as well as repeal of the Djiboutian anti-defamation law.
It states that Mr Farah's criminal conviction, the conditions of confinement, and the closure of the newspaper "not only violate international law, but can only serve to undermine the democratic ideals enshrined in the Djibouti Constitution and to threaten the legitimacy of state institutions."
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