Violence Against Speakers / Impunity
Restrepo Barrientos v. El Colombiano Newspaper
Closed Expands Expression
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The UN Human Rights Committee found a breach of the Author’s rights to freedom of expression, as well as his rights to be free of torture, to liberty and security of the person. The Author, a journalist and well-known human rights advocate, was, over a six-year period between 1997 and 2003, repeatedly arrested, assaulted and subjected to various other forms of physical mistreatment and threats. Those acts were undertaken by State agents, mainly police. On several occasions the perpetrators explicitly linked their acts to the Author’s published articles and even ordered him to stop writing such articles. Several complaints by the Author to prosecutors and other oversight bodies were not acted upon. The UN Human Rights Committee held that these acts breached the Author’s right to freedom of expression since they were clearly linked to his published articles and could never be justified as restrictions on this right. The Committee ordered Cameroon to prosecute those responsible for crimes against the Author, and to provide him with protection in the future and with compensation.
Prior to the first physical attack on the Author in October 1997, he was threatened by the Chief of Post for the Immigration Police in Ekondo-Titi (Ndian Division) (H.N.) for publishing “unpatriotic” articles accusing the police of corruption and rape. The same person also asked the Author why he had not come to the former’s office, despite no summons having been issued, warning the Author that he would be arrested, tortured and otherwise “dealt with” if he did not report to H.N.
On 12 October 1997, H.N. stopped the Author, asked him why he had failed to report to H.N.’s office and threatened to arrest and torture him. He then “assaulted the author, beating and kicking him to unconsciousness” (para. 2.4). A medical report issued by the District Hospital of Ekondo-Titi (Ndian) on 15 October 1997 states: “Patient in agony with tenderness around the mandobulo-auxillary joint, thoraco-abdominal tenderness, swollen tender leg muscles. Conclusion: Polytrauma”. Due to ongoing medical problems, on 17 December 1998 the Author consulted an oral surgeon at the Pamol Lobe Estate Hospital who, in a letter dated 4 April 1999, confirmed that the Author’s jaw bone was broken and partially dislocated and that his left ear drum was perforated. A second medical report issued by the District Hospital on 29 August 2000 indicated that the Author suffered from memory lapses, stress, depression and distorted facial configuration, and that his symptoms had not clinically improved since being tortured on 12 October 1997.
The Author made several complaints to oversight actors about the events of 12 October 1997. These included letters to the prosecutor of Ndian Division in October 1997 and on 5 January 1998, to the Delegate-General for National Security on 2 February 1998, to the Attorney General of Buea, South West Province on 9 September 1998, and to the Ministry of Justice in Yaoundé on 19 and 28 November 2001. The Human Rights Committee found that, to date, no investigation had been initiated by any of these actors [para. 2.6].
On 20 February 1998, after a police constable found the Author at the District Hospital, H.N. went to the hospital, slapped the Author’s face several times, and made various threats, including to detain him indefinitely, to parade him naked in front of women and female children, and to kill him. Following this incident, the Author was regularly summoned to the police station but declined to attend out of fear for his life. On 20 April 1998, the Author sent a complaint about the February 1998 incident to the Delegate-General for National Security, and then on 19 November 2001 to the Minister of Justice. Once again, the Human Rights Committee found that no investigation was ever initiated [para. 2.7].
During May 1999, the Author was threatened by soldiers of the 11th Navy Battalion in Ekondo-Titi. On 22 May, Captain L.D., Commander of the Battalion, asked the Author to stop writing these articles and to disclose his sources. When the latter refused, soldiers from the Battalion threatened to shoot him. On 27 May 1999, armed soldiers surrounded the Author’s house, although he managed to escape. The articles in question had alleged ill treatment of women and girls by members of the Battalion. L.D. also questioned the Author in relation to other articles about abuses committed by soldiers of a Buea-based military battalion. On 27 November 2000 the Author complained to the National Human Rights Commission about the events of 22 May 1999, but no action appears to have been taken.
On 8 June 2001, armed policemen ordered the Author and a friend to leave a bar where they were having a drink. One police officer pushed the Author to the ground, and hit and kicked him. The Author was then taken to the local police station in Kumba. During the trip, a police officer beat and kicked the Author on his head and leg and hit him with the butt of his gun. Upon arrival at the police station, the police commissioner told the Author to go home. A medico-legal certificate issued by the Ministry of Public Health on 9 June 2001 states that the Author “presents […] left ear pains, chest pains, waist and back pains, bilateral hips and leg pains all due to severe beating by police” [para. 2.11]. On 9 June 2001, the Author complained about these events to the State Counsel, Legal Department (Kumba), which forwarded the letter to the judicial police in Buea but the latter informed the Author on 6 November 2001 that no complaint had been received and so no judicial proceedings had been initiated. The State Counsel also forwarded the Author’s letter to the Minister of Justice on 19 November 2001 but, again, no action appears to have been taken.
Cameroon failed to cooperate in any way with the Human Rights Committee consideration of the Communication submitted by the Author. By Notes Verbales of 1 February 2005, 19 May and 20 December 2006, the Committee requested the State party to provide information on the admissibility and merits of the communication, but no response was ever forthcoming.
The decision, formally called “Views”, of the Human Rights Committee was unanimous. There were two key issues before the Committee. First, it had to assess whether the Communication was admissible. Second, it had to assess whether the facts of the case, as determined by it, proved a breach of various articles of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which is what the Committee is empowered to enforce.
In terms of admissibility, the Committee noted that the State Party had not contested the admissibility of the Communication, a given since Cameroon did not participate in the proceedings before the Committee at all. The Committee dispensed with this part of the decision quickly, noting that complaints had been made to several different bodies, none of which, “it would appear”, had been taken up [para. 5.2]. The Committee did not state this explicitly, but complaints had, among others, been lodged with the prosecutor and police complaints bodies, which would be the logical way to address these sorts of abuses internally.
The Committee noted that the Article 7 complaint regarding torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment was corroborated by several medical reports and the complaints made by the Author, as well as the fact that the Author was able to identify by name the perpetrators. This, along with the absence of any explanations from the State Party, was enough for the Committee to conclude that there had been a breach of Article 7 of the ICCPR.
In relation to Article 9(1), the right to liberty and security of the person, the Committee noted that police officers threatened the life of the Author on several occasions and that the State Party had failed to take any action to protect him. The Committee noted that this article protects security outside of the context of a formal deprivation of liberty. As such, there was a breach of Article 9(1) of the ICCPR on these grounds.
The right to liberty in Article 9(1) also provides protection against arbitrary arrest and detention, while Article 9(2) provides for those subject to arrest to be informed, upon arrest, of the reasons for the arrest and to be informed promptly of any charges. The Committee held that the Author had been arrested three times, on 20 February 1998, 8 May 1999, and 8 June 2001, without a warrant and without being informed of the reasons for the arrests or of any charges. These actions represented a breach of Articles 9(1) and (2) of the ICCPR.
The Author also complained of a breach of his Article 10 right to be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person during any deprivation of liberty. The Committee mentioned this claim but did not explicitly find a breach of this article.
In terms of the Article 19 freedom of expression claim, the Committee restated the three-part test for justifying any restriction, namely that the restriction be provided by law, serve one of the legitimate interests listed in Article 19(3) and be necessary to protect that interest. The Committee found that the “author has demonstrated the relationship between the treatment against him and his activities as journalist”, without going into details about this. It also noted: “[T]here can be no legitimate restriction under Article 19, paragraph 3, which would justify the arbitrary arrest, torture, and threats to life of the Author and thus, the question of deciding which measures might meet the ‘necessity’ test in such situations does not arise”. As such, it found a violation of Article 19(2) of the ICCPR [para. 6.4]. The Committee did not refer to any other precedents or go into detailed reasoning to support its decision, no doubt due to the notorious nature of the facts as proven.
The Committee was fairly expansive in terms of the remedies it ordered, stating:
The State party is under an obligation to take effective measures to ensure that: (a) criminal proceedings are initiated seeking the prompt prosecution and conviction of the persons responsible for the author’s arrest and ill-treatment; (b) the author is protected from threats and/or intimidation from members of the security forces; and (c) he is granted effective reparation including full compensation. The State party is under an obligation to ensure that similar violations do not occur in the future [para. 8].
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This decision expands freedom of expression, albeit consistently with the Human Rights Committee’s long-standing jurisprudence and any common sense assessment of Article 19 of the ICCPR. It seems clear from the decision that the Committee recognized that this was an egregious breach of the right, although it used fairly measured language in this regard. Stronger language – given the outrageous actions which gave rise to the Communication and the persistent failure of various State actors to take any steps to provide redress – would perhaps have been appropriate.
The legal reasoning of the Committee, namely that there could be no legitimate restriction which would justify the abuse perpetrated on the Author, was somewhat oblique. The Committee might have pointed out that, instead of being provided by law, the actions in question were actually illegal under Cameroonian law, and that instead of serving a legitimate interest the actions could only have undermined the interests listed in Article 19(3) of the ICCPR. It might also have been helpful if the Committee had expounded a bit on the implications of such gross abuse on freedom of expression. Indeed, it is hard not to remark on the braveness and persistence of the Author in continuing to publish bold critiques of official misbehavior in light of these attacks.
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