Togo Critics Challenge Country's Uneven Record On Human Rights

Despite recent progress, officials and activists describe `climate of fear'. WEST AFRICA

NEAR a luxury hotel here is a giant statue of the president who has ruled this West African nation for 23 years. The imposing piece of political art makes it clear who's in charge here. President Etienne (Gnassingbe) Eyadema says he has brought Togo the ``political stability'' needed for economic progress.

But a growing number of Togolese are privately saying that stability has come at a high price. This country shares a dilemma with many African nations: how to maintain political stability without curtailing human rights.

Though the president says that people are free to speak their minds, apparently few do, fearing the loss of their government jobs, detention, or even torture.

``It's not stability, it's immobility,'' says a Togolese businessman. He says people are afraid to openly criticize the president and his government.

``Torture of suspected opponents of the government has been a serious problem,'' according to the latest human rights report on Togo by the United States State Department, though the report indicates some improvement in recent years.

``Everyone is afraid,'' said one Togolese in Kara, only a few miles from the well-guarded, castle-sized home of the president.

Some basic rights are legally limited. Freedom of religion is sharply curtailed; only a handful of churches are recognized by the government. And freedom of assembly is tightly controlled. Presidential elections do not represent the people's will, several Togolese professionals say. By law, everyone is required to vote either ``yes'' or ``no'' for one candidate.

But in most cases, people are not provided a ``no'' ballot, even if they dare ask for one, Togolese sources say. In 1986, the last election, Mr. Eyadema got a 99.7 percent ``yes'' vote.

Diplomatic sources, and even some Togolese critics say there has been some improvement in human rights since the establishment of a human rights commission in 1987. But in a series of private interviews, a variety of Togolese government workers, private professionals, and others, all requesting anonymity, described a current ``climate of fear'' in Togo.

Several events have added to such fears, according to these sources:

Detention a few weeks ago of a university student who criticized the government at a public meeting. Some critics say that the student may have been tortured.

Detention of hundreds of citizens this year and last for nonpayment of loans due to a state bank. Many of the debtors are still being held. In Togo, nonpayment of debt is a civil, not criminal offense, making the detentions illegal, say human rights activists here.

Government condemnation of a Togolese attorney earlier this year who spoke out in favor of multiparty democracy and an independent judiciary.

Forced expulsion of several thousand villagers from their homes by the government earlier this year to clear the area for use as a game farm. The government now blames the expulsion on ``mistakes'' by a lower level official. But no proof was offered that anyone has been returned to his home. Critics say the game park is used as a private hunting ground by Eyadema and other top officials.

At the same time, there are a few signs of progress in human rights in Togo. Several months ago, the government allowed a private newspaper to start up. And the government did create the Human Rights Commission. The commission has received international recognition. Its president, Me Yawo Agboyibor, has been chosen as the only African this year on the pope's 10-member Council on Human Rights.

The commission has investigated and helped resolve scores of cases, including some allegations of illegal detentions.

Tibor Nagy of the US Embassy in Lom'e says the commission (which the US helped to fund) has improved treatment of citizens by the police and military - ``a major, major accomplishment.''

One professional says that now, ``if a policeman or soldier bothers you, and you get his number, it's he [the official] who will be prosecuted.''

But the commission's powers are clearly limited.

The State Department human rights report noted that the commission is ``careful not to criticize the government as such.'' And the commission's president, Mr. Agboyibor, says his organization's credibility is ``threatened'' by the government's refusal to allow it to take up cases of persons detained for nonpayment of bank loans. Human rights in Togo may be slipping ``backward,'' Agboyibor says.

``Things are worse now,'' regarding human rights in recent months, compared with the period after formation of the commission, says a Togolese intellectual.

Eyadema portrays his country as one committed to human rights. Asked by visiting journalists why there seems to be a climate of fear in Togo, he said: ``I've never bothered anyone because of their opinions.''

But some university students alleged that some political detainees are being held in private homes in Lom'e. That way, the students insist, the government can show international human rights activists that there are no detainees in prison.

The president says foreign publications are allowed into the country. ``The truth shall always come out,'' he says. But a businessman charges that publications with articles critical of the government are routinely blocked from sale within Togo.

Although the president may be willing to hear opinions contrary to his, ``no one around him encourages him toward democracy,'' says an intellectual.

Togolese with high-level political contact say the president's ministers seldom voice disagreement with his views or policies. Government critics describe the parliament as ``an assembly of sheep'' that never turns down a presidential request.

``Togolese cannot change their government through democratic means,'' the State Department's report says.

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