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Human Rights Lawyers Struggle in Equatorial Guinea

Lawyers in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea say they struggle to make their government uphold human rights, in a country often described as one of the worst abusers of basic freedoms on the continent. VOA's Nico Colombant has more from Malabo.

Lawyer Fabian Nsue Nguema shows a letter written by a woman whose husband he says was detained without any legal protection.

He also has pictures of an opposition activist who he says was recently killed at the Black Beach prison in Malabo.

Authorities say it was a suicide.

But Nguema says that is preposterous. He says there is video surveillance at the prison.

He himself was a prisoner there in 2002 for five and a half months. He was incarcerated for insulting President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who has been in power since a coup in 1979.

Lawyer Nguema, no relation to the president, calls Equatorial Guinea a criminal state run mostly by greedy illiterates.

He says even though there has been international attention on the problem of human rights in Equatorial Guinea, he thinks the situation is getting worse.

The lawyer Nguema says he considers himself the main defender of human rights here.

As he shows more of his documentation, he explains there are weekly arbitrary arrests, indefinite detentions without trial, and dozens of political prisoners. Judges, he says, do not have proper training or independence.

He says authorities use alleged coup attempts to crack down on basic freedoms even more.

Another lawyer, Ponciano Mbomio Nvo, says the role of lawyers here is often made meaningless, because suspects who are arrested, questioned or detained are usually not given access to any legal defense.

He says lawyers are often persecuted, because he says in Equatorial Guinea, they are often wrongly assimilated with the person they are trying to help.

He says if you are the lawyer of a suspected assassin, people will think the lawyer is an assassin as well, or that if he defends an opposition party leader, that he himself is an opposition leader.

He says that makes no sense at all.

The vice president of the National Commission for Human Rights reads out the 1997 law that established the commission.

The president preceded his signature with the words "For a Better Guinea."

Carmelo Mocong says the commission recently investigated allegations of torture at Black Beach prison, and that it made recommendations to improve the situation of human rights.

The government official says the problem of human rights is very complex. He says the problem exists everywhere in the world.

He says Equatorial Guineans do not accept that there is a magic formula for defending human rights.

He says every country can do it in a particular way, and that in Equatorial Guinea there has been progress in recent years.

Lawyer Mbomio Nvo says he must remain optimistic this is so, even if he is doubtful.

He says it is not just oil-induced infrastructure development that is important for Equatorial Guinea.

He says if there is no legal basis for the pursuit of improving the quality of life, then all the new development will count for nothing.