Country Reports on Human Rights Practices
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
1999
February 23, 2000

The Central African Republic is a constitutional democracy with a multiparty legislature. Ange Felix Patasse, leader of the Movement for the Liberation of the Central African People (MLPC), who first was elected President in 1993, was reelected with a narrow majority in September. The presidential election, like National Assembly elections held in late 1998, was generally free but was controlled by the Government and was marred by irregularities that tended to favor the ruling party candidate. The December 1998 defection of a National Assembly member elected on an opposition ticket gave the MLPC and its political allies a one-seat majority in the unicameral legislature, a development strongly protested by opposition parties. In January opposition parties strongly protested this defection and boycotted the inauguration of the new National Assembly; mediation both by the United Nations peacekeeping force, MINURCA, and by other elements of the international community helped end the boycott. Although the Constitution provides for separation of powers, the legislature is vulnerable to manipulation by the President, who dominates the Government. The President can veto legislation, although two-thirds of the unicameral legislature can override his veto, and he can rule by decree under special conditions. The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary; however, it is subject to executive interference.

The National Police under the direction of the Ministry of Interior and Public Security, the military forces and the national gendarmerie under the Ministry of Defense, and the Special Forces for the Defense of the Democratic Institutions (FORSDIR), which are responsible for presidential security, share responsibility for internal security. The FORSDIR presidential guard included members of the Chadian armed forces assigned on a rotating basis. Although all security forces are nominally under the control of the President and the Ministry of Defense, the military, much of which mutinied in 1996-97, is widely perceived to be of doubtful loyalty to the Patasse Government, and implementation of government plans to reduce its size have been delayed by lack of funds for severance pay and pensions. A 1,350-person peacekeeping force known as MINURCA was deployed by the United Nations Security Council in 1998, with a mandate to assist national security forces in maintaining law and order, to strengthen the national reconciliation process, to maintain a climate of security and stability during the legislative and presidential elections, and to facilitate the disarmament process. In December MINURCA began to withdraw its forces over a 3-month period. The domestic security forces, and the FORSDIR in particular, continued to commit serious human rights abuses.

The country is landlocked and sparsely populated. The majority of the population is engaged in subsistence agriculture. Annual per capita gross domestic product is estimated at $330. Principal exports are coffee, cotton, timber, tobacco, and diamonds. Salary arrears continued during the year at an average of 12 months' pay for civilians and 9 months' pay for the military. The arrears continued to impair the functioning of the Government and the authority of the State to enforce the rule of law. The misappropriation of public funds and corruption in the Government have diminished but remained widespread.

The Government's overall human rights record remained poor, with serious problems in many areas and deterioration in others. Citizens generally were able to choose their national government; however, government control of the electoral process and an instance of government manipulation of the National Assembly called this right into question. Security forces continued to commit extrajudicial killings, including government-approved executions of suspected bandits and killings reportedly committed for political reasons by members of the presidential guard. There also were credible reports of deaths of prisoners due to police abuse. Police continued to torture, beat and otherwise abuse suspects and prisoners. Other human rights abuses included harsh prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; prolonged detention without trial; limits on judicial independence; infringements on citizens' right to privacy; restraints on press freedom to criticize the government; restriction of freedom of assembly and association; some limits on freedom of religion; and some limits on freedom of movement. Violence and discrimination against women; female genital mutilation (FGM); child prostitution; discrimination against indigenous people (Pygmies); tensions and occasional violence, especially within the security forces, between some largely progovernment northern ethnic groups and some largely pro-opposition southern ethnic groups; and child labor, including instances of forced child labor, continued to be problems.

RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS

Section 1 -- Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom From:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

On the night of November 18-19, armed men, identified by press reports and by the president of the Central African Human Rights League (HRL) as members of the FORSDIR presidential guard, killed former army lieutenant Antoine Bodo in his home in Kembe, in the country's southern region. Bodo, a member of former President Kolingba's Yakoma tribe, was rumored to be working with the former President's son, Captain Serge Kolingba, to create a Yakoma militia. Bodo's killers then abducted several other persons who may have witnessed Bodo's killing and killed four of them, dropping their bodies along the road as they returned to Bangui, the capital; these four persons were gendarme Apollinaire Hondet, a pastor named Grembete of the Apostolic Church, Al Ahzdi Khalill, a local leader of the Central African Democratic Rally (RCD) party headed by former president Kolingba, and a man named Delphan from a merchant family. On December 4 the Government dispatched a team of gendarmes to Kembe to investigate the incident. A group of National Assembly members from the largely pro-opposition region accompanied the gendarmes; however, the government's Office of Human Rights was not permitted to send a representative. By year's end, neither the gendarmes nor the legislators had released their reports on the Kemba killings. However, on December 6, the president of the HRL alleged in a press statement that the killings were planned in Bangui and committed with the use of government vehicles, and that that the killers had been identified but had rejoined their units. The LCDH president accused the Patasse Government of preventive repression of its political opponents, particularly Yakoma supporters of former president Kolingba.

Police executed several suspected armed bandits and robbers with prior arrest records. A special Squad for the Repression of Banditry (OCRB), formed in response to the spread of armed robbery throughout Bangui following the military mutinies of 1996 and 1997, continued to operate. The police commissioner continued repeatedly to publicize on radio and television the crimes of criminals apprehended by this squad; they were executed the following day. For example, in late April three young members of an armed gang were shown on television with goods they allegedly had stolen, including guns, ammunition, and computers, and the head of the police explained their alleged crimes. They were executed without a trial. The prosecutor indicated that he has no record regarding the activities or detainees of this police squad. Medical staff confirmed that the OCRB often takes the bodies of persons it has executed to the hospital and leaves them for the family to pick up. Some detainees died after torture (see Section 1.c.). The Government tacitly approved the actions taken by the police squad to reduce armed robbery; it has never prosecuted members of the security forces for these extrajudicial killings. Many citizens also supported the practice of killing alleged armed robbers extrajudicially. On June 19 FORSDIR presidential guards shot and killed six Chadian herdsmen outside Bangui, in a fight precipitated by trampling of a farmer's field by a Chadian cow. Members of the guard also wounded eight Chadian herdsmen, and herdsmen stabbed and killed one FORSDIR guardsman. The gendarmerie investigated the incident, and the Government financially compensated the families of the victims.

The Government did not prosecute any members of the security forces for extrajudicial killings.

There were deaths due to mob violence, including mob killings of persons suspected of practicing witchcraft. Although religious tolerance among members of different religious groups is the norm, rural radio stations have reported several killings of persons suspected of practicing witchcraft. In October 1998, in the eastern prefecture of Obo, villagers buried alive an old man suspected of having caused by witchcraft the deaths by drowning of two young boys. In February authorities in the village of Sibut detained three men alleged to have caused the death of young persons by witchcraft. The detained men were brought before a court on charges of murder. After the court released the three men for lack of evidence, they were killed by a mob on their way home. Government gendarmes arrested some suspects and the accused are awaiting trial.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

c. Torture and other Cruel, Inhumane, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Although the Penal Code prohibits torture and specifies sanctions for those found guilty of physical abuse, police continued to beat and otherwise abuse criminal suspects and prisoners. In January FORSDIR presidential guards tortured and beat a pro-opposition labor union leader whom they had detained arbitrarily (see Sections 1.d, 2.b., 3 and 6.a.). As in previous years, family members and the HRL Executive Committee continued to file court complaints with the prosecutor based on several deaths of prisoners due to police abuse, but the authorities continued to take no action (see Section 1.a).

FORSDIR continued to be a well-equipped force parallel to the military that frequently used excessive force in its operations; it reportedly also was responsible for other serious human rights abuses (see Sections 1.a. and 1.d.). For most of the year, the Government resisted acting on a U.N. Security Council recommendation that it limit the mission of FORSDIR to the protection of the President, his family, and government institutions. As part of military restructuring legislation adopted in November, the FORSDIR unit was placed under the civilian control of the Minister of Defense. Integration of FORSDIR elements into the regular armed forces had not occurred by year's end.

There was occasional political violence during the presidential campaign (see Section 3).

There have been occasional reports that villagers who were believed to be witches were harassed, beaten, or sometimes killed by their neighbors. Courts have tried, convicted, and sentenced some persons for crimes of violence against suspected witches.

Armed foreigners, including soldiers of the governments of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DROC) and of Chad, who had fought in the civil war in the DROC on the side of the DROC Government but had fled into the country in the face of advancing DROC rebel and Ugandan forces, repeatedly abused civilians. In May heavily armed Chadian forces that withdrew from DROC conflicts committed robberies and rapes on their way back to Chad. In August six armed men alleged to be DROC government soldiers raped one French and two Korean nuns at their residence in Bangassou, near the border with the DROC, and beat a local priest (see Section 2.d.).

Prison conditions are harsh. Ngaragba, Bangui's main prison, was ransacked during the 1996 mutinies. Nearly 500 detainees, half of whom are awaiting trial, still were being kept in 10 police stations around Bangui at year's end. Cells are overcrowded, and the basic necessities of life, including food, clothing, and medicine, are in short supply and often are confiscated by prison officials for their personal use. Prisoners frequently are forced to perform uncompensated labor at the residences of government officials and magistrates (see Section 6.c.). Male and female prisoners are confined in separate facilities in Bangui but housed together elsewhere. Minors routinely are housed with adults and subjected to physical abuse.

The Government permits prison visits by human rights monitors. The national Red Cross and religious groups routinely provide supplies, food, and clothes to prisoners. The ICRC has unrestricted access to prisoners.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The law provides protection against arbitrary arrest and detention, but the security forces often ignored these provisions. The law stipulates that persons detained in cases other than those involving national security must be brought before a magistrate within 96 hours. In practice authorities often do not respect this deadline, in part due to inefficient judicial procedures. Judicial warrants are not required for arrest. By law, national security detainees are defined as " those held for crimes against the security of the State " and may be held without charge for up to 2 months.

On January 9, FORSDIR presidential guards arbitrarily detained labor union leader Sonny Cole shortly after he played a leading role in organizing a 1-day general strike to protest the ruling party's acquisition of a one-seat majority in the National Assembly through the postelection defection of a member elected as an opposition candidate (see Section 3). He was released the next day after being tortured and beaten (see Sections 1.c, 2.b., 3 and 6.a.), following initiatives on his behalf by MINURCA officials and the HRL. During the year, the Government released Corporal Jean Tindani, one of the 1996 mutineers who was granted amnesty following the 1997 Bangui Accords but had been under arbitrary detention by the police Squad for the Repression of Banditry since May 1997.

Prolonged pretrial detention is a serious problem. Approximately one-half the male prison population consists of pretrial detainees.

The law does not permit the use of exile, and the Government does not employ it in practice. The Government has stated repeatedly that any person in exile for strictly political, rather than criminal, reasons may return without fear of persecution.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but there are reliable reports of executive interference.

The judiciary consists of regular and military courts. New courts of justice were created in 1997 in both urban and rural areas. A juvenile court was created in 1998. However, these courts are not functioning due to inefficient administration, shortage of trained personnel, growing salary arrears, and a lack of material resources. In April the Criminal Court opened its second session. Lawyers defended all accused persons. Some were found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment.

In criminal cases, the accused are presumed innocent and have the right to legal counsel, to public trial, to be present at their trials, and to confront witnesses. The Government generally respects these safeguards in practice in many cases; however, a number of persons were subjected to prolonged detention without trial or were summarily and extrajudicially killed by the OCRB.

There were no reports of political prisoners.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home or Correspondence

The law prohibits invasion of homes without a warrant in civil and criminal cases. On occasions police used provisions of the Penal Code governing certain political and security cases that allow them to search private property without a warrant. Security forces continued to carry out warrantless searches for guns and ammunition in private homes, a practice initiated in 1997 as part of a disarmament process following the 1996-97 military mutinies. In February the OCRB repeatedly searched the private residence of an opposition Member of Parliament, Alphonsine Boganda, without judicial warrant or respect for her immunity, allegedly for illegally possessed guns. No guns were found. Deputy Boganda filed a complaint against the police involved in the search that she dropped after receiving an apology from the head of the OCRB. In March the police searched without warrant the office and the residence of the editor of a private newspaper, Le Citoyen, shortly after that newspaper published articles critical of the Patasse Government (see Section 2.a.). The Government continued to monitor the telephones of some opposition figures and to engage in wiretapping without judicial authority.

Section 2 -- Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press; however, the Government at times restricted the freedom of the print media to criticize the government. Legislation enacted in 1998 rescinded the Government's authority to censor the press, defined the rights and responsibilities of private media, and created a High Broadcast Council to regulate the media; however, the Government continued to dominate domestic broadcast media. Libel cases are addressed in civil rather than criminal courts.

Citizens continued to speak freely and publicly, criticizing the Government and political parties. Opposition leaders in particular used press statements, manifestos, and copies of open correspondence to the Government to circulate their views. The Government made no apparent effort to censor, seize, or halt the printing and circulation of these materials. The Government owns and controls two newspapers, the Agence Centrafricaine de Presse (ACAP) bulletin, which appears sporadically, and Be Africa Sango. Echo de CentrAfrique, a private daily newspaper created at the beginning of 1999, is close to the ruling party.

More than a dozen private newspapers were published over varying intervals; eight were published on a regular basis during the year. These newspapers often were outspoken in their criticism of the President, the Government's economic policies, and official corruption. However, the editor of Le Citoyen reported that in March the former Interior Minister--the present chief of the gendarmerie--harassed him regarding his criticism of the Government. In May security forces searched his office and attempted to arrest him in an effort to identify his sources of information.

Radio is the most important medium of mass communication, since literacy is not universal and newspapers and television are relatively expensive and rarely are found outside urban areas. The Government owns and operates a radio station and a television station. Programming was dominated by reporting on the activities of President Patasse and senior government officials. Observers noted that the ruling majority parties received more coverage of their activities or meetings than opposition parties. In January the Director General suspended Christien Noel Panika, a government radio station newscaster, from work for 3 months because he had broadcast a press release on a students' strike without approval of the Minister of Communications and had reported to Radio France International (RFI) on government actions. The presidency, especially the President's communications advisor, reportedly controls the radio programs and broadcasts. Some programs, such as a popular call-in show, whose listeners often expressed opinions critical of the Government, were taken off the air.

Government television and radio broadcasts included weekly programs that provided an opportunity for political parties to present their views and discuss their programs. Although the opposition originally welcomed this promised access to the public media, in practice it did not materialize. During the legislative and presidential elections, political parties had access to the public media according to a schedule established by the High Council of Communication; opposition candidates received equal coverage and had equal access to state-owned media.

Since the mid-1990's, the Government has partially relaxed its monopoly of domestic radio broadcasting. A private radio station, Africa Number One, part of a French-owned network based in Libreville, Gabon, has been broadcasting in Bangui since 1995. Its programming includes national news coverage by a correspondent based in the country. A station affiliated with the Catholic Church began operations the same year. Its programming includes national news, debates, legal counseling, and human rights education. RFI has been broadcasting domestically since 1997. Its programming includes some national news coverage by a correspondent based in the country. In 1998 Radio MINURCA, the U.N. peacekeeping forces' radio, began broadcasting. However, there are no private broadcast media entities owned and operated by citizens of the country, as distinct from transnational French networks or Catholic networks. There are no privately owned stations that broadcast domestically produced national news or political commentary.

The Government continues to monopolize domestic television broadcasting. Private television broadcasting is allowed by law; the High Council of Communication is responsible for authorizing private television as well as radio stations. No applications to establish a private television station have been received. In the judgment of domestic investors, the economic preconditions for one do not exist. The Government does not restrict domestic receipt or distribution of satellite or cable television, but few citizens can afford it, and it is not widespread even in the capital. A private telecommunications company established pursuant to a 1996 law that liberalized telecommunications operates a domestic Internet and e-mail service provider as well as cybercafes. Few citizens can afford home access to the Internet, but many urban residents rent brief access at cybercafes.

Prior to 1999, the Government did not impede foreign journalists in their work. However, on January 14, journalists Stephen Smith, of the newspaper Liberation, and his wife, Geraldine Faes, of Jeune Afrique magazine, along with their two children, were turned back by the presidential guards immediately after landing at the airport, despite having received proper visas at the Government's embassy in Paris. In 1998 Smith had written an article on President Patasse's diamond interests. Their friend, human rights activist lawyer Nicolas Tiangaye, who met them upon arrival, was pushed and threatened by the presidential security guards (see Sections 2.d. and 4).

The Government respects academic freedom. University faculty and students belong to many political parties and generally express their views without fear of reprisal.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for the right of assembly; however, the Government restricted this right in practice on several occasions during the year. In addition, some legal restrictions on freedom of assembly remain. A 1992 decree requires organizers of demonstrations and public meetings to register with the Government 48 hours in advance and also prohibits political meetings in schools or churches. Prior to 1999, the Ministry of Administration, Territory, and Security, now known as the Ministry of Interior, generally had not prohibited demonstrations or public meetings if notified in advance. However, in January and February the Government, with the express approval of President Patasse, refused to allow the Union des Forces Acquises a la Paix (UFAP), a coalition of political parties, labor unions, and NGO's, to hold public meetings on the grounds that it was not a registered organization. The ban was not lifted by the end of the year. The UFAP cancelled a public meeting that it had called for February 6 in order to avoid a violent confrontation with security forces. Also in February, following the opposition boycott of the National Assembly, police dispersed an opposition meeting organized in Bimbo, south of Bangui, by the deputies of the opposition Movement for Democracy and Development (MDD), an opposition party, to explain the ongoing crisis at the National Assembly to their constituency. Due in part to these government restrictions on public meetings, the opposition resorted to a 1-day general strike to express widespread disapproval of the means by which the ruling party had obtained a majority in the National Assembly. After the Presidential election, in late September and early October, the Government again enforced its ban on all public demonstrations and mass meetings nationwide.

The Constitution provides for freedom of association; however, the Government restricted this right in practice. All associations including political parties must register with the Ministry of Interior in order to enjoy legal status. The Government usually has granted registration expeditiously.

There are more than 35 registered political parties and a variety of nonpolitical associations. The Government normally allows them to hold congresses, elect officials, and publicly debate policy issues without interference except when they advocated sectarianism or tribalism. However, in January the Interior Minister suspended for 3 months the activities of two nongovernmental organizations (NGO's). These NGO's, the AITAO (Brotherhood Association) and Le Cri de la Foret distribute medicine to the rural population and promote forest conservation.

Also, in connection with prohibiting the UFAP from holding public meetings, the Government enforced a law that does not allow nonpolitical organizations to coalesce for political purposes; no comparably significant reports of enforcement of this law had been reported during previous years of the Patasse Government.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion but establishes fixed legal conditions and prohibits what the Government considers religious fundamentalism or intolerance. The constitutional provision prohibiting religious fundamentalism is widely understood to be aimed at Muslims. There is no state religion. The population is believed to be about 50 percent Christian, 15 percent Muslim, and 35 percent practitioners of traditional indigenous religions, or non-religious. Most Christians also practice some aspects of their traditional indigenous religions. In practice, the Government permits adherents of all religions to worship without interference. Religious organizations and missionary groups are free to proselytize, worship, and construct places of worship.

Religious groups (except for traditional indigenous religious groups) are required by law to register with the Government's Ministry of Interior. This registration is free and confers official recognition and certain limited benefits, such as customs duty exemption for the importation of vehicles or equipment, but does not confer a general tax exemption. The administrative police of the Ministry of Interior keep track of groups that have failed to register, but the police have not attempted to impose any penalty on such groups. The Government continued to refuse to reregister the previously registered and subsequently banned Unification Church.

The Ministry of Interior has registered more than 100 religious and nonreligious groups since 1993. However, any religious or nonreligious group that the Government considers subversive is subject to sanctions. The Ministry of Interior may decline to register, suspend the operations of, or ban any organization that it deems offensive to public morals or likely to disturb the peace. The Government has banned the Unification Church since the mid-1980's as a subversive organization likely to disturb the peace, specifically in connection with alleged paramilitary training of young church members. However, the Government imposed no new sanctions on any religious group during the year. The Ministry of Interior also may intervene to resolve internal conflicts about property, finances, or leadership within religious groups.

The practice of witchcraft is a criminal offense under the Penal Code; however, persons generally are prosecuted for this offense only in conjunction with some other offense, such as murder. Witchcraft traditionally has been a common explanation for diseases of which the causes were unknown. The practice of witchcraft is widely understood to encompass attempts to harm others not only by magic, but also by covert means of established efficacy such as poisons.

d. Freedom of Movement within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

Persons are free to move about within the country, but the police, security forces, and other officials harass travelers unwilling or unable to pay bribes at checkpoints along major intercity roads and at major intersections in Bangui. However, under pressure from the National Assembly, the Ministry of Administration, Territory, and Security removed some security forces checkpoints on the main roads outside the capital during the year.

Presidential security forces (FORSDIR) continued to be stationed at the airport to control travelers. Immigration authorities informed some citizens, when attempting to leave the country, that their names were on unspecified official lists that prohibited their departure. The Government generally allows opposition leaders to travel abroad or inside the country without restrictions; however, interventions by human rights organizations and the international community were required to achieve this in some cases during the year. Moreover, in October the Government, acting on orders from President Patasse, prevented General Timothee Malendoma, the 63-year-old leader of an opposition party, from leaving the country for the stated purpose of attending an evangelical religious conference. In January the FORSDIR refused to allow French journalists to enter the country (see Section 2.a.).

Attacks by bandits on major routes to the north and east sometimes occurred, even though travelers moved in convoys with military escorts.

The 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol have the force of law, and the Government treats refugees in accordance with its provisions. The Government continued to work with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in hosting Chadian, Sudanese, Rwandan, and Congolese refugees. Almost all refugees were registered with the National Commission for Refugees.

In May the Government allowed units of the Chadian armed forces that had been fighting on the side of the DROC government in the DROC civil war to return to Chad overland through the country (see Section 1.c.). In July approximately 15,000 to 20,000 DROC civilians and DROC government soldiers entered the country as DROC rebel forces advanced into areas of the DROC adjacent to the country. The Government facilitated UNHCR efforts to feed, house, and provide medical treatment to the refugees. It also facilitated the return of the DROC soldiers and their weapons to Kinshasa in Libyan aircraft.

Applicants for asylum generally are well treated and often are accepted. There were no reports of the forced return of persons considered to be refugees under international standards to a country where they feared persecution, but some of the DROC soldiers who were repatriated feared prosecution and possible execution for desertion by the DROC government.

Section 3 -- Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change their Government.

Citizens first exercised this right in 1993, in free and fair elections that were the culmination of a successful democratization movement led by Ange Felix Patasse. Patasse's MLPC won both the presidency and a majority of seats in the unicameral national legislature. Citizens again exercised their constitutional right to change their government by democratic means through National Assembly elections in 1998 and a presidential election on September 19. International observers deemed both elections generally free and fair. However, the presidential elections were marred by irregularities in voter registration and distribution of electoral materials. Some of the registration irregularities tended to favor the ruling party.

In the 1998 National Assembly elections, opposition parties won 55 seats, while the ruling MLPC party of President Patasse and its allies won 54 seats. However, the defection of one opposition National Assembly member in December 1998 gave the ruling party and its coalition a one-seat majority. The opposition parties and the UFAP strongly protested this defection and boycotted the inauguration of the new session of the legislature. Since the Government restricted their freedom of assembly, the opposition resorted to a 1-day general strike to express widespread disapproval of the means by which the ruling party obtained a majority in the National Assembly. FORSDIR presidential guards arrested and tortured a labor union activist following the strike (see Sections 1.c and 1.d). The FORSDIR harassed observers, such as the president of the Central African Human Rights League (LDCH), after he strongly criticized the monopolization of power by President Patasse (see Section 4).

President Patasse's first term of office expired in October, but he was constitutionally eligible to seek a second consecutive term. In June the Government established an Independent Electoral Commission (CEMI) to supervise the presidential election. Although the CEMI included representatives from many political parties on its board, its staff was run at the national level by a chairman appointed by President Patasse, and was run at the local level by central government subprefects who served at the pleasure of the President and most of whom belonged either to the ruling party or one of its coalition allies. The Government explicitly rejected suggestions by elements of the international community, which provided material and financial support for the election, that the executive branch of the Government not involve itself in the management of the electoral process. In August President Patasse promulgated a decree that subordinated CEMI to the state Organ of Control (OCASPA), a state organization that he had created by decree on May 1 to oversee the election process. Before the presidential election, there were credible reports of attempts to inflate the number of registered voters sharply in pro-MLPC northern areas, although this was corrected before the polling. The Government postponed the first round of the presidential election, first from August 29 to September 12, and then to September 19, after serious problems in ballot distribution became evident; however, the Government denied requests from opposition leaders for further delays to permit more complete resolution of problems with the electoral process. Some provisions of the electoral code, requiring publication of voter lists at least 15 days before the election and distribution of voter identification cards at least 8 days before the election, were not respected. On election day, a shortage of ballots was reported in some largely pro-opposition districts. Opposition party poll-watchers reported the use of some falsified voter identification documents by voters, and there were several reports of ballot boxes being delivered to the CEMI without certified tally sheets, or from unofficial polling places.

On October 2, two weeks after the voting, the Constitutional Court announced the official results of the election and declared President Patasse reelected with 51.6 percent of the votes cast. Nine other candidates certified by the Constitutional Court had competed in the election. The Constitution required a second-round runoff election if no candidate received 50 percent of votes cast in the first round election. However, only one of the unsuccessful candidates filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court.

There was occasional violence during the presidential election campaign. On September 10, fighting in Bangui between supporters of President Patasse and former president Kolingba, who was running against Patasse, left about 20 persons wounded. On October 2, when the Constitutional Court declared President Patasse reelected, and while the Government's ban on all large public meetings was in effect (see Section 2.b), some opposition supporters attacked the residence of the French Ambassador and vehicles that belonged to the Embassy of China to protest those two governments' perceived support for Patasse.

The Constitution provides for multiple political parties. The State is highly centralized. The central Government appoints all subnational government officials, and subnational government entities have no significant fiscal autonomy. The Government failed to hold constitutionally required local elections in recent years, ostensibly due to budgetary restrictions. The Government has appointed four successive mayors of Bangui, the capital, a southern city well outside the ruling party's main political base in the north (see Section 5).

There are no laws that restrict the participation of women or minorities in the political process, but their numbers are few in government and politics. Before and during the legislative and presidential elections, the Government's Department of Social Affairs and women's NGO's implemented programs and launched an extensive public awareness campaign to encourage women to register to vote and to compete for public office. There are very few women in prominent government positions. Only 8 members of the National assembly are women, although 80 women competed for the 109 seats. Three of the 25 cabinet members are women. The President, for the first time, appointed five women as prefects.

At year's end, there was one Muslim in the Prime Minster's Cabinet, and there were at least five Muslims in the National Assembly.

President Patasse is a member of the Sara-Kaba ethnic group. Members of northern ethnic groups, including the Sara and Baya, continued to predominate among the President's advisors, in the leadership of the ruling party, and among ruling party members of the National Assembly; they also held most ministerial positions in the Government until November, when Patasse appointed a more ethnically diverse Government. Both Prime Minister Qanicet George Dologuele and Luc Dondon Konambaye, who became President of the National Assembly in January, are distant relatives of Patasse.

Pygmies (Ba'aka), the indigenous inhabitants of the southern part of the country, who represent from 1 to 2 percent of the population, are not represented in the Government and have little political power or influence.

Section 4 -- Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

The Central African Human Rights League (LCDH) publicizes human rights violations and pleads individual cases of human rights abuses before the courts. The LCDH distributed to prisons, police stations, courts, schools, and to other NGO's pamphlets describing human rights and information on judicial access. In January the LCDH issued a press release protesting the arbitrary arrest and torture of union leader Sonny Cole by the FORSDIR and urged the Government to release him. In the same document, the LCDH also severely criticized the monopolization of executive and legislative power by members of President Patasse's ethnic group and Patasse's refusal to compromise with the opposition. Security forces harassed the president of the LDCH after he strongly criticized the monopolization of power by President Patasse (see Section 3). Several other NGO's, including the Movement for the Defense of Human Rights and Humanitarian Action and some religious groups actively monitor human rights problems. Although the Government welcomed the role that some of these NGO's played in mediating its negotiations with military mutineers in 1996 and 1997, it did not welcome their criticism of the process by which the Government formed a slender majority coalition in the National Assembly in December 1998(see Section 3).

On January 14, FORSDIR presidential guards physically abused human rights lawyer Nicolas Tiangaye at Bangui's airport, where he was meeting foreign journalists (see Section 2.a). The previous day, in an interview on RFI, Tiangaye had criticized the growing concentration of political power in the hands of members of President Patasse's ethnic group and discussed allegations of human rights violations during the Patasse Administration.

International observers including U.N. human rights monitors from MINURCA observed the 1998 legislative elections and the September presidential election. No other international human rights organizations are known to have sought to visit the country during the year.

Section 5 -- Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution stipulates that all persons are equal before the law without regard to wealth, race, sex, or religion, but the Government does not enforce these provisions effectively, and significant discrimination exists.

Women

Violence against women, including wife beating, occurs although inadequate data make it impossible to quantify the extent. Victims seldom report incidents. The courts try very few cases of spousal abuse, although litigants cite these abuses during divorce trials and civil suits. Some women reportedly tolerate abuse in order to retain a measure of financial security for themselves and their children. The Government continued not to address this problem during the year.

In daily practice, women are treated as inferior to men both economically and socially. Single, divorced, or widowed women, even with children, are not considered to be heads of households. Only men are entitled to family subsidies. Women in rural areas generally suffer more discrimination than do women in urban areas. Sixty to 70 percent of urban women have attended primary school, whereas only 10 to 20 percent of their rural counterparts have done so. At the primary level, females and males enjoy equal access to education, but the majority of young women drop out at age 14 or 15 due to social pressure to marry and bear children. Only 20 percent of the students at the University of Bangui are women. There are no accurate statistics on the percentage of female wage earners. Women's access to educational opportunities and to jobs, particularly at upper levels in the professions or in the government service, traditionally has been limited. In 1999 numerous active women's groups organized workshops and seminars to promote women's and children's rights and to fully participate in the electoral process.

Polygyny is legal, although this practice faces growing resistance among educated women. The law authorizes a man to take up to four wives, but a prospective husband must indicate at the time of the first marriage contract whether he intends to take additional wives. In practice many couples never marry formally because men cannot afford the traditional bride payment. Women who are educated and financially independent tend to seek monogamous marriages. Divorce is legal and may be initiated by either partner. The law does not discriminate against women in inheritance and property rights, but a welter of conflicting customary laws often prevails. A family code designed to strengthen women's rights was enacted in May 1998.

The Association of Central African Women Lawyers advises women of their legal rights. The organization also publishes pamphlets in conjunction with the Ministry of Social Affairs on the dangers of FGM and of food taboos.

Children

Although there is no official discrimination against children, the Government spends little money on programs for children. Churches and NGO'S have relatively few programs for youths. The failure of the education system, caused by a meager budget and salary arrears, resulted in a shortage of teachers and an increase in street children. Education is compulsory beyond the age of 5 years through primary and secondary school, but parents rarely are prosecuted for their children's nonattendance. Moreover, in practice, the age at which a child starts school often varies by 2 to 3 years in rural areas. Many children survive by begging and stealing. Several charitable organizations strive to assist them. In some rural areas, teachers or principals use their pupils as farm laborers. A teacher's strike that lasted all year further reduced educational opportunities for children (see Section 6.a).

Some girls enter prostitution to earn money for the survival of the family. The presence of international peacekeeping forces in the capital has aggravated the problem of teenage prostitution. Child prostitution increased in the capital until late in the year, when MINURCA began its withdrawal from the country. The Government did not address these problems during the year. The Penal Code forbids parental abuse of children under the age of 15 years. The Family Code was designed to strengthen children's rights. Illegitimate children now have the same rights as those born in wedlock. A juvenile court was set up in 1998 but lacked the means to function (see Section 1.e).

A 1996 ordinance banned female genital mutilation, which is widely condemned by international health experts as damaging to both physical and psychological health. However, girls continued to be subjected to this traditional practice in certain rural areas, and to a lesser degree in Bangui. Approximately 45 to 50 percent of adult females have undergone FGM. A campaign of awareness organized by the Ministry of Social Welfare and NGO'S has reduced the incidence of FGM in some rural areas. This campaign was continuing at year's end.

People with Disabilities

There is no codified or cultural discrimination against the disabled. There are several government-initiated programs designed to assist the disabled, including handicraft training for the blind and the distribution of wheelchairs and carts by the Ministry of Social Services. There are no legislated or mandated accessibility provisions for the disabled.

Indigenous people

Despite constitutional protection, there is societal discrimination against Pygmies (Ba'aka), the earliest known inhabitants of the rain forest in the southern part of the country, who make up about 1 to 2 percent of the country's population. In general, Pygmies have little input in decisions affecting their lands, culture, traditions, and the allocation of natural resources. Indigenous forest-dwelling Pygmies, in particular, are subject to social and economic discrimination and exploitation, which the Government has done little to correct. Pygmies often work for villagers at wages lower than those paid to members of other groups. Religious Minorities

Muslims (who constitute about 15 percent of the population), particularly Mbororo (also known as Peulh or Fulani) herders, continued to claim that they were singled out for harassment by authorities, including extortion by police, due to popular resentment of their presumed affluence. Muslims play a preponderant role in the economy. On September 14, supporters of an opposition presidential candidate looted Muslim businesses in Kouanga, on the DROC border.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

The population of about 3.5 million includes about 90 ethnic groups; many of these groups speak distinct primary languages and are concentrated regionally outside urban areas. The largest ethnic groups are the Baya (more than 30 percent), the Banda (more than 25 percent), the Mandja (more than 20 percent), and the Sara (about 10 percent). The Mbororo make up about 5 percent of the population but play a preponderant role in the economy. They are involved in mining development and remain the most important cattle breeders in the country.

Until 1993 there was little ethnic balance at the higher levels of government. Under the regime of Andre Kolingba, who ruled from 1981 to 1993, members of Kolingba's ethnic group, the Yakoma subgroup of the Ngbandi, held a disproportionate number of senior positions in government, the armed forces, and state-owned firms. As a result of President Patasse's 1993 election, Yakomas no longer hold a disproportionate number of positions in the civil service, but the armed forces still are being restructured to achieve greater ethnic balance. At year's end Yakomas still constituted the majority of the army. President Patasse is a member of the Sara ethnic group, which is linked to the Baya. The Patasse Government initially brought about a more representative ethnic balance to the Government. However, by 1998 observers noted that members of the Sara and Baya northern ethnic groups close to the President were a majority in Patasse's Cabinet and also receive favorable treatment in government appointments. During the year, the opposition criticized the growing concentration of state power in the hands of members of northern ethnic groups, including the President, the President of the National Assembly, and the Prime Minister (see Section 3). In November, after the presidential election, the President appointed an ethnically more diverse group of cabinet ministers and advisors, as did the Prime Minister for his cabinet. However, about 80 percent of FORSDIR members are native to the President's northern region; many belong to the President's ethnic group or closely related groups. Major political parties tend to have readily identifiable ethnic or ethnic-regional bases. The results of the 1998 legislative elections and the September presidential election confirmed that the MLPC Party of President Patasse has strong support in the north, especially among the Sara and Baya ethnic groups, but also has strengthened its support in the capital. The Movement for Democracy and Development (MDD) party of former President Dacko is strong in the southwestern part of the country and the Central African Democratic Rally (RDC) Party of Kolingba, is popular in the southeast, in the Oubangui River basin, especially among the Yakoma.

Section 6 -- Workers rights

a. The Right of Association

Under the Labor Code, all workers are free to form or join unions without prior authorization. A relatively small part of the workforce has exercised this right, chiefly wage earners such as civil servants. There are five recognized labor federations. The two most important are the Organization of Free Public Sector Unions and the Labor Union of Central African Workers (USTC), which are independent of the Government.

Unions have the right to strike in both the public and private sectors. To be legal, strikes must be preceded by the union's presentation of demands, the employer's response to these demands, a conciliation meeting between labor and management, and a finding by an arbitration council that union and employer failed to reach agreement on valid demands. The union also must provide 8 days' advance written notification of a planned strike. The Labor Code states that if employers initiate a lockout that is not in accordance with the code, the employer is required to pay workers for all days of the lockout. Other than this, the code does not provide for sanctions on employers for acting against strikers. No employer actions against strikers are known to have occurred during the year. Primary and secondary teachers remained on strike throughout the year in protest against unpaid salary arrears and unsuitable working conditions.

On January 9, FORSDIR presidential guards arbitrarily detained, beat and tortured labor union leader Sonny Cole shortly after he played a leading role in organizing a 1-day general strike to protest the ruling party's acquisition of a one-seat majority in the National Assembly through the postelection defection of a member elected as an opposition candidate (See Sections 1.c., 1.d., 2.b., and 3)

Labor federations are free to affiliate internationally. The USTC is affiliated with the International Confederation of Free Trade unions.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The Labor Code grants trade unions full legal status, including the right to sue in court. It requires that union officials been employed full-time in the occupation as a wage earner, but they may conduct union business during working hours. The code does not provide specifically that unions may bargain collectively. While collective bargaining has taken place in some instances, the Government usually is involved in the process.

Wage scales are set by the Ministry of Labor and Civil Service. Salary arrears continued during the year at an average of 12 months for civilians and 9 months for military personnel; they continued to be a major complaint of the unions.

The law expressly forbids discrimination against employees on the basis of union membership or union activity. The Labor Code does not state whether employers found guilty of antiunion discrimination are required to reinstate workers fired for union activities.

There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

Forced labor is specifically prohibited by the Labor Code, and there were no reports of forced or bonded labor, except for prisoners who were forced to work without compensation for government officials or magistrates (see Section 1.c.). The Labor Code also applies to children, although it does not specifically prohibit forced labor by children. However, the Government does not have sufficient resources to enforce the prohibition effectively. In some rural areas, teachers or principals use school children as labor on farms and some parents force their daughters into prostitution to help support the family (see Section 5.).

d. Status of Child Labor Practices and Minimum Age for Employment

The law forbids the employment of children under 14 years of age, but the Ministry of Labor and Civil Service enforces the provision only loosely. In practice child labor is common in many sectors of the economy, especially in rural areas. The Labor Code prohibits forced and bonded labor in general and children are covered by its provisions, but the Government does not enforce its provisions effectively (see Section 6.c.).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Labor Code states that the Minister of Labor must set minimum wages by decree. The minimum wage varies by sector and by kind of work. For example, the monthly minimum wage is equivalent to about $12 (7,800 CFA francs) for agricultural workers but to about $28 (18,000 CFA francs) for office workers. The minimum wage does not enable a worker and family to afford the basic necessities and is not adequate to maintain a decent standard of living. Most labor is performed outside the wage and social security system, especially by farmers in the large subsistence agricultural sector.

The law sets a standard workweek of 40 hours for government employees and most private sector employees. Household employees may work up to 55 hours per week. The law also requires a minimum rest period of 48 hours a week.

There are also general laws on health and safety standards in the workplace, but the Ministry of Labor and Civil Service neither precisely defines nor actively enforces them, a matter about which the International Labor Organization has expressed concern to the Government for many years. The Labor Code states that a labor inspector may force an employer to correct unsafe or unhealthy work conditions, but it does not provide the right for workers to remove themselves from such conditions without risk of loss of employment.

f. Trafficking in Persons

No law was known specifically to prohibit trafficking in persons, but there were no known cases that occurred.

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