January 6, 2009 / 5:10 PM / 11 years ago

Gabon detains anti-corruption activists-French NGOs

PARIS, Jan 6 (Reuters) - Five anti-corruption campaigners in Gabon were arrested just before New Year and are being detained in harsh conditions on unknown charges, non-governmental organisations in France said on Tuesday.

One of the five, Gregory Ngbwa Mintsa, is a plaintiff in a suit filed in a French court against Gabonese President Omar Bongo by anti-corruption activists who accuse the veteran leader of buying French properties with the proceeds of corruption.

Nine French NGOs said the five Gabonese campaigners were arrested on Dec. 30 and 31 and have been held since then without access to their lawyers and without being told what are the charges against them.

“The only ‘wrong’ these men have committed is to demand that Gabon apply rules of good governance as required by its international commitments, that is to say transparency and probity in the management of public funds,” the NGOs said.

They include the French arm of anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International and the campaign group Sherpa, which are also involved in the lawsuit against Bongo.

Gabon’s Interior Minister Andre Obame declined to answer reporters’ questions on Monday about the reason for the arrests.

Some weeks ago Obame appeared on state TV in Gabon and accused one of the detainees, Marc Ona, head of the local branch of Publish What You Pay and correspondent for U.S. state-backed radio Voice of America, of being politically motivated.

Obame said then that “politicised NGOs are a threat to the country’s internal security”.

The NGOs filed a suit on Dec. 2 accusing Bongo, Africa’s longest-serving leader, and two other African heads of state of accumulating properties in France that could not be financed with their official earnings.

Bongo, who has ruled his oil-producing country since 1967 and placed close relatives in key government positions, has denied the allegations made against him and threatened to sue the activists for defamation.

A 2007 French police investigation revealed that he and his relatives owned 39 properties in France, mostly in the rich 16th district of Paris, as well as 70 bank accounts and nine cars.

The properties also include luxury villas on the Riviera.

The French NGOs said that relatives of Ngbwa Mintsa had told them he had severe bruising on his legs. The men were being held with hardly any clothing in a damp cellar, the groups said.

They also said it was not known if another of the detainees, Gaston Asseko, was being provided with medication he needed after undergoing a recent operation. Asseko works for a Catholic radio station, Radio Sainte Marie.

The French press has reported that Bongo, who has cultivated close ties with successive French presidents since he came to power and regards Paris as a second home, was infuriated by the lawsuit concerning his French properties. (Additional reporting by Antoine Lawson in Libreville; editing by Alistair Thomson)

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