Diplomatic row after French lawyer barred from Libreville

Thierry Levy, the French lawyer representing Gabonese clients accused of "propaganda", was outraged when officials rejected his travel visa to Gabon at Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport.


AFP - Authorities in France and Gabon were embroiled in a diplomatic spat Thursday after a French lawyer was prevented from travelling to represent his clients detained in Libreville.

Thierry Levy -- representing Gabonese clients accused of possessing "propaganda" with the aim of revolt -- said he was stopped by border officials at Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport.

According to Levy, French border officials told him that his four-day visa had been cancelled by the Gabonese embassy in Paris, which had issued it to him on Tuesday.

Border officials showed Levy a letter from the embassy stating that the "visa was cancelled for security reasons," he told AFP.

"It is obvious that French lawyers are not wanted in Gabon," said Levy.

Among Levy's detained clients include Gregory Ngbwa Mintsa, a Gabonese man involved in a case that has been souring relations between France and Gabon for more than a year.

The French foreign ministry on Thursday said it was "closely following the situation" and underscored that the detainees had a right to defence.

"Without passing judgement on the judicial procedure, I want to remind of the importance France attaches to the respect of law, justice and freedom everywhere in the world," a spokesman for France's foreign affairs ministry, Eric Chevallier, told media.

Authorities from Gabon meanwhile defended their own right to protect what they said were "security motives."

"Gabon does not have to justify itself," Brigitte Anguile Diop, spokeswoman for the Gabonese foreign affairs ministry, told AFP.

"France does not speak up and give explanations when visas are refused every day to Gabonese people by the French consulate in Libreville," she said.

Observers in Gabon warned human rights were under threat.

"...from a point of view of human rights, it is worrying. Fundamental rights, those of expression, association and coming and going, are at risk," said Anacle Bissielo, a sociologist at Libreville University.

Prominent campaigners Marc Ona Essangui and Georges Mpaga were arrested along with Ngbwa on December 31, a day after two journalists were arrested.

They were detained for around one week before being told they were charged with "possession of a document for the purpose of distributing" propaganda "aimed at inciting revolt against the authorities."

The document in question was an open letter to President Omar Bongo, written by Bruno Ben Moubamba, the European spokesman for a Gabonese network of rights groups.

In the letter, Ben asked for "an audit of the financial management of the country over the past 40 years."

One of the two journalists was provisionally freed on Wednesday, while the four remaining detainees were jailed under the new charges along with a police officer.

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