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By Scott Stearns
13 January 2009
Gabon has provisionally released five journalists and anti-corruption campaigners charged with inciting rebellion for possessing a document critical of long-time president Omar Bongo. The French government wants Gabon to lift its visa restriction on a French lawyer who is representing one of the accused.
Gabon Interior Minister Andre Obame says the journalists and anti-corruption campaigners are charged with possessing "written propaganda with a view to inciting rebellion against state authorities."
The men were arrested two weeks ago for possessing copies of an open letter to President Bongo published last month on a French political blog by Bruno Ben Moubamba, who is the spokesman for a group called the Free Actors of Gabonese Civil Society. The letter asks President Bongo to account for his management of Gabon's finances during more than 40-years in power.
Newspaper editor Dieudonne Kougou was provisionally released one week ago, the other four were released on bail Monday. If convicted, they could be sentenced to five years in prison and fines of more than 500 dollars.
Reporters Without Borders Africa desk chief Ambroise Pierre says Kougou and radio Sainte-Marie technical director Gaston Asseko were arrested for doing their jobs. Pierre says the charges against them are absurd and the group believes the investigating judge will recognize the charges are without substance.
He says the government action is particularly dangerous if other journalists in Gabon, fearing similar treatment, begin self-censoring what they report.
One of the anti-corruption campaigners charged along with the journalists is Gregory Mintsa. He is also a plaintiff in a suit brought by the French chapter of Transparency International that accuses President Bongo of embezzling public funds to buy property in France.
President Bongo denies the charge and is counter-suing for defamation.
French attorney Thierry Levy is representing Mintsa. But Levy's visa for Gabon was canceled when he tried to travel to Libreville last week. Now the French Foreign Ministry is asking the Bongo administration to approve Levy's visa under the 1963 Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty that allows defense attorneys from the two countries to practice equally in France and Gabon.
A French Foreign Ministry spokesman says Paris is asking that the rights of the defense be respected and that those accused have access to council.
Also facing charges are Georges Mpagi, president of the Gabonese Civil Society Network for Good Governance and the national coordinator of the anti-corruption organization Publish What You Pay, Marc Ona, who is also a reporter for Voice of America.