- Togolese President Gnassingbé Eyadéma has decreed the release of 505 of the country's more than 3,200 prisoners. While most of the pardoned prisoners are common law offenders, the list also includes seven political prisoners of the opposition. According to the government, however, there are no political prisoners in the country.
Togolese Minister of Justice, Katari Foli-Bazi, today announced the mass pardoning of prisoners. "This act of mercy concerns a total of 505 detained for common low offences that have expressed their will to reintegrate themselves into society," said the Minister. Most the pardoned had served more than half their sentence or had been held in preventive detention for long periods.
Thos that had served more than half their sentence were to be released on parole, with decisions made on a case-to-case manner. Those having experienced long preventive custodies, on the other hand, were provisionally released as a group, awaiting further orders from authorities, Minister Foli-Bazi explained the limited amnesty.
Mr Foli-Bazi added that his Ministry had made anything in its powers to see to that this decision "is applied as from this day" (Tuesday), the government of Togo informed today. Ex-prisoners talking to the media in Lomé today indeed confirmed the application of the amnesty.
This was also confirmed by representatives of the seven known political prisoners that have been released. These are activists from Togo's main opposition party, the Union of Forces for Change (UFC). They had been arrested after violently protesting that the UFC leader, Gilchrist Olympio, was barred from being candidate in last year's presidential poll. Mr Olympio was the opposition favourite to will the poll.
Togolese authorities however firmly reject that their prisons hold or have held political prisoners. State Prosecutor Dabre Gbandjagba told the press in Lomé that all those released were "common law offenders, not political prisoners." The UFC activists had been arrested because they had been violent and were trying to set fire on a petrol station.
According to human rights groups, however, the Eyadema dictatorship has always made use of political imprisonments and continues to do so. Also the US State Department, which annually writes thick reports on human rights abuses in Togo, mentions political imprisonment. In particular journalists critical of President Eyadema have been made familiar with Togo's prison facilities.
The political climate in Togo, were Mr Eyadema has ruled since his 1967 coup, is however slowly about to change after more than a decade of economic sanctions against the country from the European Union (EU). The EU demands deep-ploughing political reforms and respect of human rights by the Eyadema regime to lift sanctions.
The limited amnesty decreed by President Eyadema is seen by observers in the light of Togo's attempts to please the EU. The EU is in the process of reviewing its policies towards Togo and the Lomé government currently is launching a series of initiatives - mostly symbolic, according to the sceptical opposition in the country.
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