Wave of arrests in Chad | Africa | DW | 20.05.2013
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Wave of arrests in Chad

Chad has Africa's largest contingent of troops in Mali. It is fighting alongside French forces to flush out Islamist groups. But at home, the government is cracking down on opposition activists and journalists.

Political prisoners in Chad. Photo: Amnesty International

Politische Gefangene im Tschad

Chadian President Idriss Deby suddenly declared last Monday (13.05.2013) to be a public holiday to mark the return home from Mali of the first 700 Chadian soldiers. In the capital N'djamena people turned out in large numbers to welcome the soldiers. But apart from that, Chad has little to celebrate.

In early May the government claimed to have foiled a coup attempt. Since then, a wave of arrests of opposition activists and journalists has rolled across the country. It is estimated that ten to twenty people have been arrested, but no one knows the exact number. The accused are said to have been involved in a conspiracy against the government and to have endangered constitutional order. Among those arrested is a DW journalist, Eric Topona, an opposition member of parliament Gali Gata Ngote, and Routouang Yora Golom who is a member of parliament for the ruling party.

Parliamentary immunity ignored

Chadian human rights activist and lawyer Delphine Djiraibe is defending the two members of parliament. She says her clients were arrested despite their parliamentary immunity. "The whole process is wrong. These people must be released," she told DW.

DW journalist Eric Topona

DW journalist Eric Topona is among people arrested for conspiracy

Currently her clients are waiting for the court hearing. "And since the investigating judge is not bound by time limits in Chad, all of this can take forever," said Djiraibe.

International observers have called for fair trials and are surprised by the different backgrounds of the detainees.

"One wouldn't normally link the people who are now accused of involvement in conspiracy,'" said Helga Dickow, Chad expert at the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute at the University of Freiburg.

"There is something fishy going on here," she added.

Strong in Mali, tough at home

Dickow's guess is that the Chadian president is using his military involvement in Mali and the international recognition this brings or his own purposes. For 20 years, Idriss Deby has ruled Chad with an iron fist. He himself came to power in 1990 through a coup.

"I would say that Deby is now feeling strong enough to take action at home unhindered, because he knows the former colonial power, France, is at his side," Dickow told DW. The Chadian president has been helping the international community to get rid of the Islamists in northern Mali. He presumably assumes that in return the allies will criticize him less when he cracks down on the opposition.

Armoured vehicles in the northeastern town of Kidal, Mali. Photo: REUTERS/Cheick Diouara

Chadian soldiers have been operating alongside French troops to drive Islamists out of northern Mali

That members of the ruling party are among those arrested,  does not come as a surprise for Dickow. This is because not all members are actually behind the party. Some of them have joined the party because they were promised professional or financial gain. This is very important in a poor country like Chad.

Observers call for international pressure

Last week President Idriss Deby denied the allegations that he is conducting a witch hunt against the opposition. France, Chad's partner in Mali,  only expressed its concern on Monday (13.05.2013). The French Foreign Ministry said it was concerned about the arrests in Chad and added that the people concerned should be able to defend themselves and rely on the presumption of innocence. This first gesture from France must now be followed by clearer words and political pressure, says Marielle Debos, a researcher at the French "Institute for Social Sciences in Politics" in Chad.

She sees the Chadian mission in Mali closely linked to a phenomenon she'sw observed for several years. Idriss Deby wants a significant role in the regional and international arena. "He wants to be a pillar in Central Africa, that no one can avoid," Debos told DW.

After Gadhafi's fall in Libya, Deby has played an important role in the renewal of the Community of Sahel-Saharan States which seeks a common free trade zone. Deby's troops are also active in the neighboring Central African Republic. They are supporting the interim president after a coup staged in March.

Deby also wants to continue to play an important role in Mali. Chad is considered as one of the candidates for the leadership of the UN peacekeeping force to take over in July.

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