Gabon: Strict regulations and police violence
This case focuses on the necessity and proportionality of restrictions and the excessive use of force by police.
Themes: Freedom of religion or belief, legitimate limitations, public health grounds, COVID-19
When public life resumed following a 7 month lockdown, the Catholic Church in Gabon announced that churches would re-open on Sunday 25 October. On 16 October the government published new regulations introducing tight restrictions on public worship: only one service per week, no distribution of Communion, and a maximum of 30 worshippers, all of whom must provide a negative COVID-19 test result and register their attendance with the government.
The church protested both the delay and the rules which made it impossible for many to attend Mass, particularly poor people unable to obtain the COVID-19 tests. They also complained that shops, schools and other institutions were being permitted to operate without comparable restrictions.
On 24 October the Gabonese government deployed police patrols across the country to blockade churches and prevent early re-openings. Archbishop Jean Patrick Iba Ba of Libreville wrote to parishes informing them that security forces were starting to surround local churches but encouraged local churches to proceed with re-openings on the 25th using a shorter simpler format, without celebrating mass.
Soldiers then surrounded the Archbishop’s residence, barricaded nearby roads and churches, arrested two priests in the diocese and used teargas on parishioners filming the blockades. A spokesman for the archdiocese said church re-openings would still go ahead, since shops, banks and other places were already open. “We will continue to open our churches while respecting the safety measures,”.
While officiating the re-opening ceremony at St Charles Lwanga Cathedral, Bishop Jean-Vincent Ondo Eyene of Oyem and his fellow clergy were reportedly attacked by soldiers.
This case focuses on the necessity and proportionality of restrictions and the excessive use of force by police. You may find the following guidance from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights helpful in relation to this case:
If derogations from a State’s human rights obligations are needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, all measures taken should be proportionate and limited to those strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.
Law enforcement officials may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty and only when less harmful measures have proven to be clearly ineffective.