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Trial Observation Report: Mass Trial in Equatorial Guinea


From March to May 2019, the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights[1] monitored a mass trial in Equatorial Guinea as part of the Clooney Foundation for Justice’s TrialWatch initiative.[2] The proceedings concluded with the unjust conviction of 112 defendants[3] for participation in an alleged coup attempt. From the outset, the trial was marred by egregious procedural irregularities, including the President’s direct appointment of judges and prosecutors from the military and police, and violated guarantees that are part of every State’s obligations under international human rights law.[4]

The case stemmed from what the prosecution alleged to be a failed coup attempt in December 2017. According to the prosecution, the accused planned to overthrow the President of Equatorial Guinea by attacking the presidential palace. The purported plan involved the recruitment of foreign mercenaries from countries such as Cameroon and Chad. Roughly 130 defendants were charged with treason, crimes against the head of state, rebellion, possession and storage of weapons and ammunition, terrorism, and the financing of terrorism.

The pretrial stage entailed grave abuses of defendants’ rights: the majority of defendants were held in incommunicado detention for approximately a year; defendants were not informed of the charges against them; defendants were denied access to their lawyers; many defendants were allegedly tortured and otherwise mistreated; authorities withheld the full case file from defense counsel; and defense counsel received notice of the start of trial only four days in advance.

At trial, violations of defendants’ rights were equally stark. In particular, the significant disparities between the court’s treatment of the prosecution and defense contravened the principle of equality of arms. The court consistently issued arbitrary rulings against the defense, prohibiting defense lawyers from asking about the aforementioned pretrial abuses, limiting defense questioning to minutes at a time, curtailing defense objections, denying defense requests for witnesses, and barring the defense from cross-examining prosecution witnesses.

In contrast, the court placed no such restrictions on the prosecution, making allowance after allowance for state attorneys. The court permitted the prosecution, for example, to rely on torture-tainted evidence,[5] to introduce pretrial statements obtained without counsel present, and to add new charges at the very end of the trial: a clear violation of both prosecutorial ethics and the defense’s right to adequate preparation.

Despite receiving an excess of latitude, the prosecution wholly failed to build its case against the accused, presenting evidence that was at best circumstantial and, at worst, an example of guilt by association. At times, the prosecution resorted to asking defendants themselves to clarify their roles in the alleged coup attempt, reflecting the dearth of proof.

Perhaps the most serious due process violation that occurred was the blatant lack of judicial independence. Although acts of insurrection and attempted assassination are extremely serious, it is precisely because of their gravity that the trial should have been conducted with absolute autonomy, absent any pressure or orders from other branches of government. Instead, the President of Equatorial Guinea directly intervened in the proceedings.

After the trial had already been underway for a month, it was announced on state television that the President had appointed new magistrates and prosecutors from the military and police via executive decree. Soon thereafter, a military official appeared in the audience to serve - according to local journalists and defense counsel - as an “observer.” Monitors noted that throughout the remainder of the proceedings, the official relayed messages to the prosecution and judges. As such, what should have been a trial conducted by a civilian court was transformed into a trial conducted before a hybrid military court, with the degradation of judicial independence and impartiality on display for all to see.

The judgment itself serves as the capstone on the grossly unfair proceedings. In convicting 112 individuals, at least 20 of whom received sentences of over 70 years, the court failed to make individualized findings of guilt or to undertake evidentiary analysis. Numerous people will lose years - if not their whole lives - based on scant proof. The judgment thereby falls far short of the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard required by the presumption of innocence.

Given the absence of evidence against the vast majority of defendants, the authorities should either immediately order their release or, alternatively, overturn the convictions on appellate review. With respect to the other defendants, the Equatoguinean authorities should review the sentences imposed and either institute appellate proceedings that respect the due process of law or release defendants unconditionally. Finally, the authorities must launch investigations into the many credible allegations of torture aired throughout the trial.

View Full Report (English) (Español)

[1] The American Bar Association is the largest voluntary association of lawyers and legal professionals in the world. As the national voice of the legal profession, the ABA works to improve the administration of justice, promotes programs that assist lawyers and judges in their work, accredits law schools, provides continuing legal education, and works to build public understanding around the world of the importance of the rule of law. The ABA Center for Human Rights has monitored trials and provided pro bono assistance to at-risk human rights defenders in over 60 countries.

[2] The Center would like to thank the Clooney Foundation for Justice for providing funding for the monitoring of the mass trial in Equatorial Guinea and the production of the report. The Center is also grateful to all those who provided valuable information about the trial and helped with the observation mission.

[3] Due to inconsistencies in the listing of defendants in both the judgment and prosecutorial submissions, all numbers in this report are approximate.

[4] The statements and analysis expressed herein are solely those of the authors, have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and do not represent the position or policy of the American Bar Association. Furthermore, nothing in this report should be considered legal advice for specific cases.

[5] This report does not evaluate the veracity of torture complaints. However, absent investigations and compliance with the Convention against Torture and Istanbul Protocol, all statements allegedly obtained through torture are considered torture-tainted.

Additional Reading

The charging documents/El escrito de calificaciones provisionales (Español)

The final judgment/ la sentencia (Español)