U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Gabon

  President Omar Bongo has ruled Gabon since 1967, but internal pressures beginning in late 1989 forced him to acquiesce to sweeping political reforms, including the promulgation of a new Constitution providing for many basic freedoms and explicitly abolishing the former system of one-party rule. However, the National Assembly is still controlled by Bongo's former party (the Gabonese Democratic Party, or PDG), which won a majority of seats in multiparty legislative elections in 1990. Although the PDG supported independent candidate Bongo in the 1993 Presidential elections, Bongo had relinquished all formal ties with the PDG before the electoral campaign. There are also deputies from eight other political parties. President Bongo's current 7-year term expires in February 1994. In keeping with the 1991 Constitution and the recommendations of the 1990 National Conference, presidential elections took place in December. In an election marked by administrative chaos and attempts by supporters of several candidates to influence the outcome illegally, Bongo received 51.18 percent of the vote. Following the proclamation of the election results, opposition presidential candidates filed suit with the Constitutional Court on December 20 to have the election annulled. The Court, which is charged with verifying the results of all elections, must render a decision within 3 months from the date the suit was filed. Since the Constitution allows presidents to serve two 5-year terms, President Bongo's term would expire in 1999. Responsibility for internal security is shared by the gendarmerie (a paramilitary force of 2,700) and the national police (consisting of 2,000 troops). Security forces regularly employ beatings when interrogating suspects. The police and the gendarmerie came under criticism for not protecting opposition political gatherings from potential and actual violence (see Section 2.b.). Gabon is richly endowed with petroleum, manganese, uranium, and vast timber resources, but it has experienced limited agricultural and industrial development and must import most of its food and manufactured goods. Rain forest covers 85 percent of the country, and approximately half the 1.2 million population lives in rural areas. Gabon's relatively high per capita income ($5,906 in 1992), based largely on oil revenues, belies the underdeveloped nature of the country and its economy. Due to the precipitous fall in revenue from oil exports in the late 1980's and an increasing debt load, the Government imposed limited austerity measures to meet International Monetary Fund program criteria in 1991. Since independence, Gabon's economic policy has followed a free market orientation and welcomed foreign investment. In 1993 the Government carefully controlled the political process culminating in the December presidential elections. It introduced preelectoral measures, namely, a new Electoral Code, a general census, a voting register, and several commissions to oversee the actual elections. At the same time, it engaged in or facilitated a series of steps during the year which seriously impinged on freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and association and harassed political and human rights critics. Other human rights abuses included the security forces' mistreatment of illegal aliens, detainees, and prisoners and legal discrimination and societal violence against women.


Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There was one confirmed report of extrajudicial killing carried out by security forces. During demonstrations that followed the announcement of President Bongo's election victory, members of the Presidential Guard detained, then publicly shot and killed a demonstrator. A soldier was arrested in this case, and both the Government and the military were carrying out investigations at year's end. In the following 2 weeks, there were at least three additional confirmed reports of security forces using lethal force against demonstrators or curfew violators. In addition, there was an unconfirmed report that one person died in prison when he was deprived of water. An investigation was still ongoing into the death of "Fantomas," a prisoner who died in police custody in 1992.

b. Disappearance

There were no confirmed cases of disappearances or abductions ascribed to government security forces or any other group.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The Constitution prohibits the use of torture and inhuman or extreme mistreatment. Gabonese security forces and prison guards frequently use beatings, not only to obtain confessions but also simply to exercise authority over prisoners. Credible witnesses visiting imprisoned nationals report such beatings, along with routine strippings and head shavings. In the case of Louis-Venant Makomambasa (see Section 1.d.), in which there were political and security aspects, his relatives reported that he had been beaten and harshly interrogated. However, following his release, the family elected not to press charges and therefore no investigation was carried out. Conditions in most prisons are abysmal; sanitation and ventilation are very poor, and medical care is almost nonexistent. Only minimal food is provided, and there are reports that prisoners are deprived of water as a further means of punishment.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The law provides for up to 48 hours of initial preventive detention, after which either a court's judgment must be delivered, or a more lengthy investigation opened. In practice, however, prisoners are often held longer without charge, especially in security-related cases. In a highly publicized case, a member of the gendarmerie, Louis-Venant Makomambasa, was accused of passing military secrets to a leading opposition political party. He was arrested, questioned, then released. One week later, relatives reported that he had again been detained, and that he was held without charge, tortured, and otherwise mistreated. After 3 weeks, he was again released. There were reports that the authorities called in opposition members and union members for short periods of questioning. There were also occasional, unconfirmed reports from the interior that local officials held people briefly in connection with political activities. As far as known, the Government did not press charges in these cases. The Government continued to detain frequently usually for short periods illegal aliens suspected of violating the law. (see Section 2.d.). There were no known political detainees or prisoners being held at year's end. Exile is not used as a punishment or means of political control in Gabon, and there are no opposition leaders currently living in forced exile. Pierre Mamboundou, who was convicted in absentia for involvement in a 1989 coup plot, returned to Gabon in 1993 to present himself as a presidential candidate. Although he experienced some difficulty boarding a plane in Dakar, no action was taken against him upon his return. The conviction against Mamboundou still exists, but there had been no action taken to prosecute him at year's end.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The judicial system includes the normal court system, a Military Tribunal to handle all offenses under military law, a State Security Court, which is a civilian tribunal, and a Special Criminal Court that deals with fraud and embezzlement of funds by public officials. There are no traditional or customary courts, but in some areas family disputes may be taken before a village chief for resolution. However, chiefs' decisions have no legal weight and are not recognized by the Government. The regular civilian court has three levels: the trial court; the appellate court; and the Supreme Court, which has three chambers. The 1991 Constitution transformed what had been the fourth chamber into the Constitutional Court, an independent body which is devoted solely to constitutional questions. The right to a fair public trial is provided for in the Constitution and is generally respected in criminal cases. Nevertheless, procedural safeguards are lacking, particularly in state security trials, where the judiciary remains potentially vulnerable to intervention by the executive. In these courts, trials are open to the public, and defendants are represented by counsel, but appeals to the Supreme Court are restricted to raising points of law. The State Security Court is not a permanent body and is called into existence only as the Government determines to hear security cases. It was last convoked in 1990 to hear the coup plot cases of 1989-90. The new Constitutional Court, invested in February 1992, has demonstrated that it can act independently of the Government. Its decisions were integrated into the 1993 Electoral Code which governed the country's first multiparty presidential elections in December. In November the Court declared unconstitutional several articles of a press decree proposed by the President, including an article which would have required newspaper publishers to submit copy to the Minister of Territorial Administration prior to publication (see Section 2.a.).

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The Constitution provides protection against searches without warrant and surveillance of individuals or other invasions of privacy. Legally authorized searches of private homes may occur only during designated hours. Since the promulgation of the new Constitution, extralegal abuses of this nature have decreased. Nevertheless, search warrants often require minimal justification and may even be issued after the fact. Government authorities have used warrants to gain access to the homes of opposition leaders and their families although there were no confirmed cases of forced entry without warrant. The Government also regularly exercises surveillance of private citizens' movements, correspondence, and telephone conversations. There have been credible reports of government and military personnel being discharged, transferred, or denied promotion because of membership or association with opposition parties.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for the right of free speech and press. People speak freely, including in the National Assembly. There are nine weekly independent and opposition newspapers in addition to the government-controlled daily, L'Union. In April the first opposition radio station, Radio Liberte, began broadcasting and in September Television Liberte commenced operation. The ruling PDG also began a radio station and part-time television service. During the presidential campaign, media, especially those controlled by political parties, but also L'Union, published numerous allegations of corruption against politicians of all stripes and launched personal attacks on political leaders and their families. A disturbing trend, however, was the growing tendency by security elements to resort to intimidation and extralegal acts (such as electronic jamming and the confiscation of transmitting equipment) in an attempt to influence the opposition media. In July, in response to opposition press attacks on the Government and the military, the Ministers of Defense and Territorial Administration convoked opposition press leaders and demanded more responsible journalistic practices. Unidentified security elements subjected Radio Liberte, whose legal status was disputed by the Minister of Communications, to electronic jamming on numerous occasions throughout 1993, with the complicity of the Government. In another incident, the Governor of Tchibanga dismantled a Radio Liberte transmitter which was eventually restored to its owners. On December 16, the facilities of another independent radio station, Frequence Libre, were destroyed by an unidentified group of commandos operating after the government-imposed curfew. At year's end, an investigation was pending. In early September, following the publication of an article in an opposition paper alleging that human sacrifices were taking place at the Presidency, the Prime Minister issued a decree prohibiting the publication of any newspaper not in conformity with a preindependence press code and existing commercial regulations. This measure effectively banned for nearly 2 months the publication of all but a handful of papers controlled by supporters of the President. On October 7, President Bongo, acting under his constitutional powers to pass legislation by decree when the National Assembly is not in session, issued a comprehensive press decree. The National Communications Council and an opposition Deputy immediately challenged this decree, and the Constitutional Court subsequently ruled several of its provisions unconstitutional, including requirements that newspapers register as commercial entities and submit copy to government authorities before publication. With the unconstitutional articles deleted, the National Assembly approved the press decree before the end of its 1993 session, and the decree will enter into force in February 1994. International news is rebroadcast by Gabonese stations, and some foreign stations can be picked up via satellite. Foreign periodicals and newspapers are widely available, including a number of sensational exposes of high-level corruption which appeared in the French press. There were no government bans on foreign news. There are no official restrictions on academic freedom, including research.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

Recognized organizations (whether political, labor, youth, women's cultural, ethnic, or otherwise) enjoy freedom of assembly and association. A number of political parties held parts of their party congresses in the National Assembly building itself. Permits are required for all outdoor assemblies, and the police must be notified in advance. By law, unauthorized demonstrations are not permitted, but in practice they often take place and are tolerated. There were no known instances of the authorities prohibiting meetings or demonstrations for most of the year, but the Government imposed a state of alert in mid-December that banned all public meetings, and security forces prevented various opposition gatherings from taking place. Gabonese authorities normally showed considerable restraint in dealing with demonstrators. During the 2 weeks prior to the elections, police acted quickly and effectively to assure that demonstrations and confrontations between the opposition and the PDG remained peaceful. However, during other times of the year security forces were noticeably absent from potentially troublesome situations, despite advance knowledge. Police failed to defuse riots after an August soccer match that resulted in four deaths. They were also absent from some opposition gatherings which were disrupted by violence attributed to street gangs paid by rival parties.

c. Freedom of Religion

There is no state religion, and the Constitution provides for religious freedom. A significant number of Gabonese in urban areas are Catholic or Protestant, while both Christianity and traditional African religions are practiced in the interior. Less than 1 percent of Gabonese are Muslims, although the President and a significant number of the West African expatriate population perhaps as many as 200,000 are Muslim. A number of foreign missionary groups engage in both evangelical and social projects with no government interference. In 1970 the Government banned Jehovah's Witnesses, claiming that their activities fostered disunity. This ban has been neither rescinded nor actively enforced.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

Although there are no legally mandated restrictions on internal movement, Gabonese nationals and expatriates alike frequently encounter difficulties. Police and gendarmerie officials often stop travelers to examine identity, residence, and registration documents. In May what were thought to be politically motivated groups formed barricades on many of the roads in Gabon's interior, demanding improved government facilities and services. Many of these groups descended into lawlessness, extorting cash from travelers and damaging vehicles, thereby greatly restricting the flow of goods and people. Government authorities eventually sent troops to clear out the barricades, and while there were arrests, there were no reports of serious violence or abuse. The curfew and the state of alert imposed in mid-December placed limits on freedom of movement. Police detained or fined anyone out after 10 p.m. and frequently stopped vehicles for random searches. Routine identity checks also greatly increased. During the 2 weeks immediately after announcement of election results, the authorities restricted travel of some opposition figures and others associated with the "Second Republic Government" of Paul Mba Abessole; two presidential candidates were barred from traveling to their hometowns, and one was not permitted to board a flight for Europe. Gabonese nationals often encounter difficulties when they wish to travel abroad. The Gabonese Center for Documentation requires extensive paperwork from Gabonese citizens in order to obtain a passport and often imposes delays of up to a year before granting the document. An exit visa is required to leave the country. Opposition members have complained that they have been subjected to stricter exit visa control than nonpolitically active citizens. Women must have permission to travel from their husbands, which is sometimes denied, in order to obtain this visa. Foreign nationals must pay the equivalent of $100 for an exit/reentry permit for each trip out of the country, and even with valid documents they often experience difficulties at ports of entry. The authorities turn even documented foreigners away. The roughly 250,000 African expatriates resident in Gabon encounter the greatest difficulties; residence cards cost over $1,000, and foreigners are often detained even when in possession of valid paperwork. Requests for bribes are commonplace. Gabon continues to control strictly the influx of foreign workers. The Government has established a program of voluntary departure for illegal immigrants in cooperation with a number of African embassies and consulates, and this has greatly diminished the cases of mistreatment of undocumented immigrants. Between 1992 and 1993, the Government forcibly repatriated approximately 15,000 Nigerians without due process. Gabon continues to exercise its own control over refugee identification, although coordination with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has improved and statistics are more readily published. There are about 150 refugees in Gabon; there were no reports of mistreatment or forced repatriation of refugees in 1993.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

The 1991 Constitution provides for this right, including the right of citizens to organize and campaign in the political process. There were serious irregularities in the 1990 multiparty legislative elections, including ballot rigging by the PDG and other parties. In March 1992, the National Assembly adopted an Electoral Code which gave the Ministry of Territorial Administration control of the organization of the 1993 Presidential elections, with political parties and nongovernmental organizations given observer status. Despite a long lead time, grants of material assistance from a number of countries, and offers of technical assistance from others, election preparations were inadequate, especially in Libreville where 40 percent of eligible voters reside. On election day, the combination of inadequate organization and poorly trained election officials facilitated attempts by supporters of several candidates to influence the outcome, in particular through illegal trafficking in voter registration cards and multiple voting. The vote count itself took place under chaotic conditions. At midnight on December 9 when, according to several reports, votes were still being counted, the Minister of Territorial Administration issued results showing President Bongo the winner with 51.07 percent of the vote. While the Constitutional Court subsequently proclaimed Bongo the winner of the elections, a petition was filed with the Court on December 20 by several other candidates to have the presidential election annulled. The declaration of election results was followed immediately by the imposition of a state of alert which, under the provisions of a preindependence law, provides for the house arrest of persons judged dangerous to public order and suspension of certain rights, including the right of assembly and freedom from search without warrant. The state of alert also permitted censorship of correspondence, the press, radio, film, and theater, limited the free circulation of persons and goods, and established a curfew. By year's end, the Government had invoked only a few of these sanctions, most notably a ban on travel by opposition presidential candidates and frequent military roadblocks and checkpoints. Citing organizational problems and an unsettled political climate, the Government postponed municipal elections, which had been scheduled for December 26, until March 27, 1994. There are no legal restrictions on women or minorities in politics. Some women have risen to positions of prominence in the Government. Of the 120 Deputies in the National Assembly, 6 are women, and 3 women head government ministries. The President of the new Constitutional Court is a distinguished female jurist, and women head many of Gabon's human rights and nongovernmental organizations. Despite constitutional protections, the indigenous Pygmies rarely participate in the political process, and the Government has made only marginal efforts to include them (see Section 5).

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

While the Government handles most investigations of human rights cases directly, it permits local human rights groups to function. Several of these local groups have become increasingly vocal. In the first report of direct government interference, the head of the Gabonese League of Human Rights claimed that he was subjected to official harassment following a broadcast on Radio Liberte in which he attacked the Minister of Communication's decree suspending the independent press. There have been no active inquiries or participation from foreign groups in recent years, so the Government's attitude toward international inquiries is not known.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The 1991 Constitution forbids discrimination based on national origin, race, gender, or opinion, and there are no systematic government-sponsored activities carried out against any specific group.


Despite the new Constitution, women continue to face legal and societal discrimination. A woman is still required to obtain her husband's permission to travel abroad, and in the case of her deceased husband's estate, his family has the right to claim large parts of the property. The head of the Constitutional Court a woman and the League of Women Jurists are actively contesting these laws. Urban-based women face much less societal discrimination than those living in rural areas. They enjoy greater access to education, government employment, and private sector business opportunities than rural women, whose roles are determined by tradition and family and who bear the brunt of hard physical labor, both domestic and agricultural. Urban women are more aware of their legal rights, including the right to own property, to associate and invest as they like, and to run businesses. Gabon has a common property law, whereby all property and wealth obtained after marriage is owned jointly by the husband and wife; however, a spouse may not demand half control of anything his or her partner earned or gained before the marriage. Women may also initiate divorce proceedings and women have initiated and won suits against discriminatory employers. Violence against women, including wife beating, does occur, especially in rural areas. Villagers do not frown upon rural women who leave abusive husbands, and among some ethnic groups, a woman's family may help her seek recourse from the family of the abusive husband. Rape and other violent crimes against women are infrequent.


The Government has given only limited attention to children's rights. However, there was discussion of the subject in the National Assembly in 1993, and the Assembly gave the Government authority to sign the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of the Child.

Indigenous People

Several thousand indigenous Pygmies live in the south of Gabon. They exist largely independent of formal authorities, keeping their own traditions in independent communities. In theory, they have the same civil rights as any citizen, although in practice they are often the victims of local discriminatory practices. They have virtually no ability to participate in decisions affecting their lands, culture, traditions, and the allocation of natural resources. When the Government instituted its policy of "regroupment," consolidating several smaller villages into larger ones along main roads, the Pygmies remained in their outlying villages, mostly without electricity, water, or state schools. There are no government programs specifically targeted to assist Pygmies.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Credible reports indicate that favoritism in hiring and promotion based on ethnicity occurs on a fairly frequent basis in both the public and private sectors. However, this occurs back and forth across ethnic lines, and neither the Government nor any single ethnic group is able to exercise a systematic denial of privilege or right to any other group. Some ethnic groups maintain that President Bongo carefully allocates key cabinet and government positions to members of his ethnic group, and they complain that there is no legislative check on certain appointments, such as to the Supreme Court. However, individuals from all ethnic groups occupy prominent positions within the Government, the military, and the private sector.

People with Disabilities

There are no laws prohibiting discrimination against persons with disabilities, and there are no laws providing for accessibility for the disabled. In August members of the National Association of Handicapped People in Gabon (ANPHG) staged a protest at the Presidential Palace, demanding accessible housing and revision of their social security benefits. In response to the ANPHG protests, the President's wife initiated a campaign to provide wheelchairs to the handicapped.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The 1991 Constitution recognizes the right of citizens to form associations of all kinds, including trade and labor unions. According to the Constitution, there are no restrictions on this right of association. Unions, in order to be officially recognized, must register with the Government. A 1992 law also allowed public employees to organize, although their right to strike is limited in areas pertaining to public safety. Under single-party rule, all workers were required to belong to a single union, the Gabonese Labor Confederation (COSYGA), to which they contributed a mandatory 0.4 percent of their salaries. In 1992 a new law allowed for the creation of unions independent from COSYGA and abolished the mandatory contribution. Among some 70,000 union workers in the modern wage sector, COSYGA continued to represent about 30,000, according to its statistics. COSYGA is strongest in the construction, commerce, and state-owned sectors, while CGSL is strong among teachers and foreign workers. The petroleum sector is also strongly unionized by smaller independent unions. A revision of the Labor Code, which dates back to 1978, has been repeatedly delayed. It would grant government recognition to the new Gabonese Confederation of Free Trade Unions (CGSL). The revised code had still not been officially published by year's end, but the CGSL has been recruiting members and organizing actively for nearly 2 years. The CGSL has greatly expanded membership and representation for foreign workers in Gabon, who make up at least 30 percent of the work force. The CGSL has also been active in attempting to organize among civil servants, but labor leaders report that civil servants have remained reluctant to do so. According to the Labor Code, unions remain free from Government and political interference, although they are permitted to associate themselves as their members choose. During the presidential campaign, CGSL openly associated itself with the opposition (although not with a specific party), while COSYGA supported President Bongo. Under the 1978 Code, strikes are illegal if they occur before compulsory arbitration takes place. The International Labor Organization and the CGSL have strongly criticized this provision, and the revised code holds provisions to change it. The Government has announced, but has not yet carried through, its intentions to liberalize the right of workers to strike in the new code. In practice, the Government has allowed labor to strike without fear of arrest or other reprisal since the official liberalization that followed the National Conference in 1990. The Labor Code prohibits direct government action against strikers who have abided by the compulsory arbitration provision. It also prohibits the Government from pressing charges against a group as a whole for criminal activities on the part of an person during a strike. In 1993 the Government did not punish strikers, including those who did not follow the provisions of the Labor Code. There were a number of short, wildcat strikes in 1993: Postal and Telecommunication workers struck occasionally, including on one occasion in support of Radio Liberte, which at the time was being jammed (see Section 2.a.); and university teachers also went on strike in June, refusing to give exams until the Government granted them a greater role in governing the National University. These strikes all took place with no government reprisals against strikers. Unions and confederations are free to affiliate with and participate in international labor bodies. The COSYGA is affiliated only with the Organization of African Trade Union Unity, although it participates with other international bodies. Even though the Government still had not granted CGSL legal recognition in 1993, CGSL has affiliated with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.

b. The Right To Organize and Bargain Collectively

The Labor Code provides for the right of collective bargaining. Labor and management meet to negotiate differences, with a representative from the Ministry of Labor present only as an observer. When an accord is reached, the ministry representative is called upon to draft an agreement document and witness the parties' signatures. Unions in the petroleum sector and banking sectors, for example, have effectively engaged collective bargaining provisions to reach agreements with employers. Unions in each sector of the economy negotiate with management without government interference over specific pay scales, working conditions, and benefits, and the agreements reached apply to nonunion workers. While there are no specific laws which prohibit antiunion discrimination, decisions against employers found guilty of antiunion discrimination are handled on a case by case basis; the law does not specifically require employers to reinstate workers, but compensation, as decided by the court, must be made. In one case in 1993, a woman who was fired for becoming pregnant twice in a 2-year period won a suit against her employer. She informed the court that she did not wish to be reinstated, and a different form of compensation was stipulated. There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

Forced labor is prohibited by law and not practiced.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

Children below the age of 16 may not work without the express consent of the Ministries of Labor, Education, and Public Health. These Ministries rigorously enforce this law, and few people in the modern wage sector are under the age of 18. In rural areas, however, children work in agriculture and other traditional activities.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The 1978 Labor Code and the 1982 General Convention of Labor govern working conditions and benefits for all sectors and provide broad protection to workers. Each year representatives of labor, management, and government meet to examine economic and labor conditions; they recommend a minimum wage rate within government guidelines to the President, who then issues an annual decree. Currently, the minimum wage for unskilled workers is adequate to support workers and their families. The minimum monthly wage is $219 (FCFA 64,000). Gabon's oil and mineral wealth and its developed modern wage sector allow foreign and local firms to pay competitive wages and grant generous fringe benefits, including paid maternity leave and 6 weeks of paid annual vacation. Union leaders have stated that in many cases adequate conditions of work exist. The standard legal workweek mandated by the Labor Code is 40 hours, and work over 40 hours a week must be compensated by overtime. A minimum rest period of 48 consecutive hours must be allowed. The Ministry of Health establishes occupational health and safety standards, but does not enforce these standards effectively. Application of labor standards varies greatly depending on company policy, and government regulation is largely ineffective. Conditions for foreigner workers in Gabon, both documented and undocumented, are often especially harsh. Employers often stipulate longer hours and allow poorer working conditions, and they often hire only on a short-term basis in order to avoid paying social security taxes or benefits. Increased labor activities and worker education programs have improved some situations, but abuses still exist.

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