Djibouti is a republic with a strong elected president and a weak legislature. In 2016 President Ismail Omar Guelleh was re-elected for a fourth term. International observers from the African Union (AU), Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and Arab League characterized the election as “peaceful,” “calm,” and “sufficiently free and transparent” but noted irregularities. Most opposition groups did not characterize the elections as free and fair. Three of the seven opposition parties participated in the February legislative elections. Opposition groups stated that the government reneged on a 2015 agreement by not installing an independent electoral commission to manage and oversee elections. International observers from the AU, IGAD, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and the Arab League characterized the 2018 legislative elections as “free, just, and fair,” an assessment disputed by the leaders of unrecognized opposition parties.
Civilian authorities maintained effective control over security forces.
Human rights issues included arbitrary treatment by government agents; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; criminal libel; restrictions on free assembly and association; abusing and detaining government critics; government abridgement of the ability of citizens to choose or influence significantly their government; government corruption; violence against women with inadequate government action for prosecution and accountability, including female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C); restrictions on worker rights; and child labor.
Impunity was a problem. The government seldom took steps to prosecute or punish officials who committed abuses, whether in the security services or elsewhere in the government.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
According to a human rights group, on July 9, state security forces shot and killed a young man in Northern Djibouti during an investigation into an armed rebel group.
In 2015 the government investigated law enforcement officials and civilians allegedly responsible for killing as many as 30 persons gathering for a religious ceremony. The government did not find any law enforcement officials responsible for the deaths. Several civilian cases related to the same incident remained pending.
Authorities seldom took known actions to investigate reported cases of arbitrary or unlawful killings from previous years or to try suspected perpetrators.
The government prioritized investigating and arresting alleged members of a rebel group after accusing the group of a May attack on heavy machinery for the construction of a controversial road project in the North.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The constitution and law prohibit such practices; however, according to credible local sources, security forces assaulted detainees.
Security forces arrested and abused journalists, demonstrators, and opposition members.
On March 26, domestic human rights groups stated that Documentation and Security Service (SDS) personnel detained and beat Mohamed Ahmed Ali after he produced a series of Facebook posts. The motive for his arrest was unclear. He was released one week later without trial.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
International organizations reported prison conditions remained harsh. The country had one central prison, Gabode, in the capital and a second, smaller regional prison in Obock, as well as small jails supervised by local police or gendarmes. These jails often served as holding cells before detainees were moved to the central prison. The Nagad Detention Facility, operated by police, primarily held irregular migrants and was not part of the prison system. There were reports police and gendarmes abused prisoners.
Physical Conditions: Gabode Prison conditions of detention for women were similar to those for men, although less crowded. Authorities allowed young children of female prisoners to stay with their mothers. The prison population exceeded the facility’s original planned capacity by almost double. Due to space constraints, authorities did not always hold pretrial detainees separately from convicted prisoners, nor were violent offenders always separated from nonviolent offenders. Authorities occasionally separated opposition supporters from the rest of the prison population. Authorities provided poor lighting and heating, limited potable water and ventilation, and poor sanitation conditions for the prison population.
Prisoners with mental disabilities, who constituted a growing percentage of the prison population, regularly received adequate care. They were kept in the infirmary, although separately from prisoners with serious communicable diseases. They had access to psychiatric services through the national health system.
Conditions in jails, which held detainees until their summary release or transfer to the central prison, were poor. Jails had no formal system to feed or segregate prisoners and did not provide consistent medical services. Prisoners were fed on a regular basis.
Conditions at the Nagad Detention Facility were poor, although detainees had access to potable water, food, and medical treatment. Authorities deported most detainees who were foreign nationals within 24 hours of arrest. While normally used for irregular migrants, the government also used the Nagad Detention Facility as a temporary holding place for civilians arrested during political demonstrations or engaged in political activity.
Government statistics indicated no prisoner or detainee deaths during the year.
Administration: Officials investigated reports of cases of inhuman conditions that they deemed credible. The government-sponsored National Commission for Human Rights conducted an annual tour of the prisons but did not release a public report.
Independent Monitoring: The government usually granted prison access to foreign embassies for cases of foreign citizens detained in the prisons. Authorities allowed International Committee of the Red Cross representatives to visit the Nagad Detention Facility and the Gabode Prison quarterly to assess general prison conditions. The government also allowed embassy officials to visit Gabode Prison.
According to an independent organization, high-profile refugees–formerly prisoners of war–received adequate treatment at the Nagad Detention Facility, including mental health services.
Improvements: A permanent doctor and four nurses were available at the prison. The medical staff provided specialized medicine for those detainees with specific illnesses such a tuberculosis or diabetes. An international organization provided female prisoners with specialized hygiene kits on a regular basis. Government officials organized a fundraiser to donate sanitary kits and stationary materials to female prisoners and children. Women prisoners had access to vocational training and income-generating activities.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but the government did not respect these prohibitions.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
Security forces include the National Police under the Ministry of Interior, the Army and National Gendarmerie under the Ministry of Defense, and the Coast Guard under the Ministry of Transport. An elite Republican Guard unit protects the president and reports directly to the presidency. A separate National Security Service also reports directly to the presidency. The National Police is responsible for security within Djibouti City and has primary control over immigration and customs procedures for all land border-crossing points. The National Gendarmerie is responsible for all security outside of Djibouti City and is responsible for protecting critical infrastructure within the city, such as at the international airport. The army is responsible for defense of the national borders. The Coast Guard enforces maritime laws, including interdicting pirates, smugglers, traffickers, and irregular migrants.
Security forces were generally effective, although corruption was a problem in all services, particularly in the lower ranks where wages were low. Each security force has a unit responsible for investigating allegations of misconduct, and the Ministry of Justice is responsible for prosecution. During the year the government received one formal complaint of law enforcement misconduct. The state prosecutor brought charges against two law enforcement officers accused of abusing a detainee during an arrest. The case continued at year’s end. Authorities took no action to investigate complaints of misconduct from previous years. Impunity was a serious problem.
The National Police has a Human Rights Office and has integrated human rights education into the police academy curriculum.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
The law requires arrest warrants and stipulates the government may not detain a person beyond 48 hours without an examining magistrate’s formal charge; however, the government generally did not respect the law, especially in rural areas. Authorities may hold detainees another 48 hours with the prior approval of the public prosecutor. The law provides that law enforcement authorities should promptly notify detainees of the charges against them, although there were delays. The law requires that all persons, including those charged with political or national security offenses, be tried within eight months of arraignment, although the government did not respect this right. The law contains provisions for bail, but authorities rarely made use of it. Detainees have the right to prompt access to an attorney of their choice, which generally occurred, although there were exceptions. In criminal cases the state provides attorneys for detainees who cannot afford legal representation. In instances of unlawful detention, detainees could get court ordered release but not compensation.
Arbitrary Arrest: During the year government officials arbitrarily arrested journalists, opposition members, academics, and demonstrators, often without warrants.
For example, in February SDS personnel arrested Abdou Mohamed Bolock for complaining on Facebook that the Obock Region lost legislative seats under the leadership of the prime minister. He was detained and later released without charge.
In October, after a traffic dispute, a foreign contractor was beaten, unlawfully detained, and denied access to the person’s embassy. The contractor was released after two days in detention and ordered to leave the country.
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention was a problem. Prisoners often waited two, three, or more years for their trials to begin. Judicial inefficiency and a lack of experienced legal staff contributed to the problem.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: After release detainees have the ability to challenge lawfulness of detention. Due to mistrust of the judicial procedure and fear of retaliation, the majority refrained from pursuing recourse.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
Although the constitution and law prohibit such actions, the government did not respect these prohibitions. The law requires authorities to obtain a warrant before conducting searches on private property, but the government did not always respect the law. Government critics claimed the government monitored their communications and kept their homes under surveillance.
The government monitored digital communications intended to be private and punished their authors (see section 2.a., Internet Freedom).
While membership in a political party was not required for government jobs, civil servants who publicly criticized the government faced reprisals at work, including suspension, dismissal, and nonpayment of salaries.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The constitution and law allow for freedom of expression, including for the press, provided the exercise of these freedoms complies with the law and respects “the honor of others.” The government did not respect these rights. The law provides prison sentences for media offenses.
Freedom of Expression: Individuals who criticized the government publicly or privately could face reprisals. Plainclothes security agents in mosques monitored the content of sermons during Friday prayers.
In separate instances in May, SDS personnel arrested Chehem Abdoulkader Chehem (Renard) and Mahmoud Ali for posting their plays criticizing the government on Facebook. In June authorities dismissed their cases after allegedly seizing their passports. On September 1, Ali was arrested again for publishing a post on Facebook that criticized the government’s decision to mandate school uniforms for public schools. He was subsequently released without charge.
Press and Media Freedom: There were no privately owned or independent newspapers in the country. Printing facilities for mass media were government owned, which created obstacles for those wishing to publish criticism of the government. The principal newspaper, La Nation, maintained a monopoly on domestic news.
Opposition political groups and civil society activists circulated newsletters and other materials that criticized the government via email and social media sites.
On March 10, SDS personnel arrested Djiboutian Armed Forces communications officer Captain Rashid Hachi Youssouf, and detained him for one week for sharing the first chapter of his novel, The Al Capone of Milk, online. The title is an apparent reference to Ainanche Ismail Omar Guelleh’s (son of the president) exclusive control of the country’s milk market. On March 14, Youssouf was released. The president dishonorably discharged him from the army. He fled overseas, where he resided at year’s end.
The government owned the only radio and television stations, operated by Radio Television Djibouti. The official media generally did not criticize government leaders or policy, and opposition access to radio and television time remained limited. Foreign media broadcast throughout the country, and cable news and other programming were available via satellite.
The Ministry of Communication in 1992 authorized the creation of the Communication Commission to distribute licenses to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) wishing to operate media outlets. In 2017 the commission received an office and hired staff. The commission has not issued any licenses, but it reported it had not received any applications. The commission intervened during the February legislative elections to enforce balanced coverage of majority and opposition parties by local state-owned media (television, newspaper, and the radio). The opposition parties engaged in the race characterized media coverage as fair.
Violence and Harassment: The government harassed journalists.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Media law and the government’s harassment and detention of journalists resulted in widespread self-censorship. Some opposition members used pseudonyms to publish articles.
Before a newspaper may begin circulation, it requires authorization from the Communication Commission, which requires agreement from the National Security Service. The National Security Service reportedly investigates funding sources and the newspaper staff’s political affiliations.
Libel/Slander Laws: The government used laws against slander to restrict public discussion.
There were few government restrictions on access to the internet, although the government monitored social networks to prevent demonstrations or overly critical views of the government.
Djibouti Telecom, the state-owned internet provider, blocked access to websites of the Association for Respect for Human Rights in Djibouti and radio station La Voix de Djibouti that often criticized the government. According to the International Telecommunication Union, 56 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were government restrictions on academic and cultural events. For example, the government restricted research in the northern region of the country for security reasons.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. The government, however, deprived many citizens of this ability by suppressing the opposition and refusing to allow several opposition groups to form legally recognized political parties. The formal structures of representative government and electoral processes had little relevance to the real distribution and exercise of power.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: In 2016 the Constitutional Council proclaimed the official and final results of the 2016 presidential election and confirmed the re-election of President Ismail Omar Guelleh for a fourth term in the first round of voting. The Constitutional Council certified that Guelleh was re-elected president with 111,389 of 127,933 votes cast, giving him 87.7 percent of the vote. Two opposition and three independent candidates shared the rest of the votes. One opposition group boycotted the election, stating the process was fraudulent. After the election opposition members noted irregularities, including alleging authorities unfairly ejected opposition delegates from polling stations, precluding them from observing the vote tallying. Most opposition leaders called the election results illegitimate.
International observers from the African Union (AU), Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and Arab League characterized the 2016 presidential election as “peaceful,” “calm,” and “sufficiently free and transparent” but noted irregularities. For example, international observers stated the Union for a Presidential Majority (UMP) coalition continued to provide campaign paraphernalia after the campaign period closed, including on the day of the election. Some polling station workers also wore shirts and paraphernalia supporting the UMP. The executive branch selected the members of the National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI).
During the year the Constitutional Council proclaimed the official and final results of the legislative election and confirmed the ruling coalition’s control of 90 percent of the legislature. Two opposition parties shared the remaining 10 percent. Leaders of unrecognized opposition parties called the election results illegitimate due to the lack of a regular and independent election commission, and expressed their displeasure through Facebook posts and hunger strikes.
International observers from the AU, IGAD, Arab League, and Organization of Islamic Cooperation characterized the legislative elections as “free, just, and fair.” The mission from the AU, however, noted several worrisome observations, including lower voter registration due to restrictive laws, inadequate implementation of biometric identification processes during the elections, voter intimidation, inadequate security of submitted ballots, premature closures of voting centers, and the lack of opposition observers during ballot counting.
There was limited progress on implementing the 2016 law establishing conditions for opposition party activities and financing. The AU noted that the financing part of the law had not been implemented for the legislative elections.
Political Parties and Political Participation: State security forces beat, harassed, and excluded some opposition leaders. The government also restricted the operations of opposition parties.
As in previous years, the Ministry of Interior refused to recognize three opposition political parties, although they continued to operate: the Movement for Development and Liberty (MoDEL), the Movement for Democratic Renewal, and the Rally for Democratic Action and Ecological Development (RAADE). Members of those political parties were routinely arrested and detained for illegal political activity.
In August the minister of interior refused to renew the authorization for the Republican Alliance for Development (ARD) party to operate legally in the country. After an internal party reshuffle, the government refused to acknowledge new party leadership. From August 8 to 18, ARD president Abdoulkaer Abdallah went on a hunger strike.
On March 23, authorities arrested a security guard at an annex of the RADDE opposition party. Authorities detained him for one day and released him with instructions to evacuate the space. Abdisalam Ismail, Youth Designate for the RAADE party, was arrested on October 21 and remained detained.
On October 18 and 19, police arrested five MoDEL leaders for reportedly opening a training school for their supporters.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women and members of minorities in the political process. While women did participate, they did not meet the required 25 percent of political candidates and election administration officials, required by a 2017 law. International observers documented only 11 percent of election administration officials were women, and only 8 percent of candidates were women.
In 2017 the country elected its first female mayor in a communal election. In the February legislative elections, the number of women elected to the legislature more than doubled from eight to 18.
Women held 18 of 65 seats in the National Assembly, and there were three women in the 23-member cabinet. The presidents of the Appeals Court and of the Tribunal of First Instance were both women. Custom and traditional societal discrimination resulted in a secondary role for women in public life.
For the February legislative elections, CENI had no high-ranking female members.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, but the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. According to the World Bank’s most recent Worldwide Governance Indicators, government corruption was a serious problem.
Corruption: No known high-level civil servants were disciplined for corruption. The government ceased an initiative begun in 2012 to rotate accountants among government offices as a check on corruption. The law requires the court and Inspectorate General to report annually, but both entities lacked resources, and reporting seldom occurred.
During the year the Court of Budget and Disciplinary Action made annual reports on corruption available online. The court also called a conference with local journalists to distribute reports. The authority to prosecute corruption, however, lies with the Criminal Court.
Financial Disclosure: Public officials are subject to financial disclosure law, but they usually did not abide by the law.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
The government generally allowed a few domestic human rights groups that dealt with matters authorities did not consider politically sensitive to operate without restriction, conducting limited investigations and sometimes publishing findings on human rights cases. Government officials occasionally were responsive to their views. Government-sanctioned human rights groups regularly cooperated with local associations offering training and education to citizens on human rights issues such as women’s rights. Many of these associations had leaders who were also key officials of the government. Nevertheless, local human rights groups that covered politically sensitive matters did not operate freely and were often targets of government harassment and intimidation.
Following the death of human rights activist Jean Paul Noel Abdi in 2012, a group of civil servants from various ministries created the Djiboutian Observatory for the Promotion of Democracy and Human Rights. Although the organization applied for association status in 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015, the Ministry of Interior had not granted the group formal status by year’s end.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The government’s National Human Rights Commission included technical experts, representatives of civil society and labor unions, religious groups, the legal community, the Ombudsman’s Office, and the National Assembly. By law the commission is a permanent institution with staff and regional offices. The commission last produced an annual report in 2016 and occasionally commented on cases of concern.
A government ombudsman holds responsibilities that include mediation between the government and citizens on issues such as land titles, issuance of national identity cards, and claims for unpaid wages. Written records of the ombudsman’s activities were sparse, and it was unclear what actions he took during the year to promote human rights.