On February 24, 2023, about thirty activists of the African People's Party - Côte d'Ivoire (PPA-CI) accompanied the party's secretary general to his summons by an Abidjan investigating judge. Damana Pickass is suspected of involvement in the attack on a military camp in April 2021. When they arrive, they find themselves facing a large police force.

"We were brutally taken away, a policeman was shouting 'Pick them all up', for no reason," said Joachim Zelehi Serikpa, the party's deputy secretary-general. Others describe the use of tear gas, beatings of those wearing caps and scarves bearing the image of Laurent Gbagbo. The former Ivorian president founded the party in October 2021, six months after returning to Côte d'Ivoire after ten years in exile.

The activists of this opposition party were placed in police custody, then tried at first instance and sentenced on March 9 to two years in prison. On 22 March, after a ten-hour appeal trial, they were granted a stay. A half-hearted victory for Sylvain Tapi, one of the four lawyers. "You can't convict people who haven't committed any criminal offence. They did not commit any act likely to disturb public order. On that day, there was no traffic ban. This is a trial without evidence," said the lawyer contacted by France 24.

In addition to these 26 activists, four PPA-CI supporterswere detained in late February. They were arrested for waving Russian flags at a political rally of the party in Yopougon, an opposition stronghold north of Abidjan. They were eventually released along with the other activists. "It is not a crime to display the flag of a foreign power. There is a legal uncertainty around the arrest, the indictment and the release, "says Mr. Tapi, who denounces an "attempt of intimidation". Laurent Gbagbo, who met these supporters on March 29, makes the same observation: these are measures to "discourage his activists from demonstrating".

Government Firmness

For its part, the government continues to show its firmness. At a press briefing on March 16, government spokesman Amadou Coulibaly described the gathering of PPA-CI supporters as a "wild" demonstration that had not been declared to the prefecture beforehand. He adds that the supporters have made an appointment in front of the office of the investigating judge while an "investigation remains secret". For him, the militants had nothing to do with it and that is enough to justify the force.

Asked about the people who waved Russian flags, Amadou Coulibaly did not wish to comment on the issue: "We have no particular comment and we do not want to interfere in court decisions because otherwise, it is the same people who will reproach us for not having a free and independent justice."

This reflection is a barely veiled allusion to the attitude of the PPA-CI which, during a press conference in mid-March, had reported "relentless judicial harassment", a "judicial apparatus that allows itself to be manipulated by the power in place" as well as "attacks against party cadres". Opponents regret in particular that Marie-Odette Lorougnon, vice-president of the PPA-CI, was threatened by pro-government activists for having described as "mercenaries" the 46 Ivorian soldiers detained for ten months in Mali.

"In Côte d'Ivoire, we are free to express ourselves but not to defame," warned Abdoul Awassa, head of a pro-government citizen movement who visited Marie-Odette Lorougnon. Contacted by France 24, the man who claims to be a defender of power warns: "We are not violent, everyone can express themselves, but we do not tolerate the discrediting of the army or power."

A "bad signal" sent to the opposition in the run-up to local elections

Less than six months before municipal and regional elections, this renewed tension between pro-Laurent Gbagbo and supporters of Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara is taken very seriously by political observers – the two leaders being at the origin of the electoral crisis that left 3,00 dead in the country in 2010-2011. Since the return of Laurent Gbagbo, the two leaders seemed to emphasize appeasement and reconciliation. "Unfortunately, with these arrests, the government is sending the wrong signal to the opposition and is beginning to make it understand that no criticism will be tolerated," said political analyst Geoffroy Kouao.

The author of the book "Electoral Violence and Apology of Impolitics. Should we despair of Côte d'Ivoire?" observes a "judicialization of political life, symptomatic of the refusal of democracy". According to him, by doing so, the government attracts the wrath of public and international opinion while giving Côte d'Ivoire the image of a state of lawlessness.

The issue of freedom of assembly and expression also arises for civil society. In December, about forty doctoral students who were demonstrating to denounce precarious working conditions in their field were arrested, imprisoned and finally sentenced to four months in prison suspended for disturbing public order.

Amnesty International's concern

Earlier, in August, Pulchérie Gbalet, an Ivorian civil society figure, served a sentence of more than five months in prison. She had travelled to Mali to discuss the fate of Ivorian soldiers detained in Bamako and accused of being mercenaries. Onher return, this close to the opposition was arrested and sentenced to more than five months in prison for collusion "with agents of a foreign power likely to harm the military and diplomatic situation of Côte d'Ivoire, maneuvers likely to discredit the institutions and cause serious disturbances to public order". During the 2020 presidential election, she called for protests against a third term for President Alassane Ouattara before being arrested and jailed for eight months for "disturbing public order".

Amnesty International regularly denounces these situations. The latest communiqué, concerning PPA-CI activists, was issued on 13 March. The NGO points to arbitrary detentionsand obstacles to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. "In theory, freedom of expression and demonstration is guaranteed by Ivorian constitutional texts, but in practice, it is quite the opposite. Whether because of Covid-19 or the terrorist threat, there is always a pretext to dissuade Ivorians from demonstrating," said Kokou Hervé Delmas, Executive Director of Amnesty Côte d'Ivoire, France 24. The NGO and some political analysts are concerned about the turn of events in the run-up to local electionsinitially scheduled for the last quarter of 2023, the first election in which Laurent Gbagbo's party has participated since 2011.

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