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In an interview late Tuesday with French radio station RFI and France 24 television, Africa’s longest-serving president confirmed the death in custody of an opposition activist but put it down to ill health.
“I think there are about 20 people” currently under arrest, he said, without saying why they had been arrested or if they faced any legal proceedings following a crackdown which the opposition says began after mid-November’s election.
“It would make no sense” to give a specific figure, said Obiang, whose regime is regularly attacked by rights groups for the suppression of the opposition, civil society groups and the media.
His remarks came a day after the country’s main opposition party, Citizens for Innovation (CI), said 41-year-old Santiago Ebee Ela had died after being tortured, claiming he was one of about 200 of its supporters who had been arrested over the past two months.
The party, which accused the government of “cruel and inhumane” treatment of its detainees, said Ebee Ela had been arrested on January 2 and had died late on Saturday after undergoing torture at Malabo’s central police station.
Although there was no initial word on his death from officials, Obiang confirmed it, insisting he had died as a result of illness.
“I believe his death had no link to mistreatment, he was a sick man,” said the 75-year-old leader who has ruled the oil-rich West African nation since 1979.
“We will hold an inquiry,” he said, repeatedly denying the torture claims, insisting “it is not true.”
Since the November 12 vote, in which Obiang’s Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea (PDGE) won 99 of the parliament’s 100 seats, the CI — which won the remaining seat — says it has been subjected to a major crackdown, with scores of its people arrested in the capital Malabo and the port city of Bata.
Further arrests took place this month after the government claimed it had thwarted an attempt to overthrow Obiang, blaming the failed coup on foreign mercenaries recruited by the opposition.
It is the first time there has been any official comment on the repeated arrests and claims of mistreatment raised by the opposition in recent weeks.
“After the elections, the regime began a widespread campaign of political persecution of CI supporters,” a member of Equatorial Guinea’s civil society told AFP on Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Equatorial Guinea is one of sub-Sahara’s biggest oil producers but a large proportion of its 1.2 million population still lives in poverty.
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