U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 2003 - Sao Tome and Principe

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
February 25, 2004

The Democratic Republic of Sao Tome and Principe is a multiparty democracy. Fradique de Menezes was elected President of the country in a 2001 election deemed free and fair by international observers. In March 2002 parliamentary elections, also deemed free and fair, the Movement for the Liberation of Sao Tome and Principe-Social Democratic Party (MLSTP) won 24 seats, the Movement for the Democratic Force of Change (MDFM) coalition took 23 seats, and the Ue-Kedadji coalition won 8 seats; Gabriel Arcanjo Ferreira da Costa was named Prime Minister. In September 2002, President Menezes dismissed Costa and his government, and on October 2002, a new 13-member coalition government was formed under Maria das Neves, the first woman to hold the position of Prime Minister. That government remained in power, despite an attempted coup in July. The judiciary was generally independent; however, it was subject at times to influence and manipulation.

The Minister of National Defense and Internal Affairs supervise and control the military services, the police, and immigration. The Government and international donors continued to dedicate resources to improving soldiers' living conditions, salary, and benefits, all issues negotiated as part of ending the attempted coup. Some members of the security forces committed human rights abuses.

The mainstay of the mixed economy was the export of cocoa; coffee, vanilla, and pepper also were produced for export. The population was approximately 137,500; per capita annual income was $280. Unemployment remained high, and endemic malaria slowed economic production. The Government has privatized all state-held land and was somewhat successful in its efforts at structural adjustment; however, the country remained highly dependent on foreign aid.

The Government generally respected the human rights of its citizens; however, there were problems in some areas. Security forces on occasion beat and abused detainees and violently dispersed a demonstration. Prison conditions were harsh, and the judicial system was inefficient. Violence and discrimination against women were widespread, child labor was a problem, and labor practices on plantations were harsh.


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

a. Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life

There were no political killings during the year.

On April 17, one person died and three were injured after police attempted to disperse a violent demonstration; a subsequent investigation did not resolve whether police or demonstrators were responsible (see Section 2.b.).

On March 29, the court convicted a police sergeant of involuntary manslaughter in the October 2002 death of Ineas Cravid. The police sergeant was sentenced to 12 years in prison; two other officers involved in the case were convicted of abuse and violation of authority and sentenced to 8 and 4 years' imprisonment, respectively. All three officers filed appeals.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

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

The Constitution prohibits such practices; however, there were reports that security forces at times beat and abused detainees in custody.

After an April 17 demonstration, authorities arrested and detained 37 demonstrators; some claimed that police beat them in custody (see Section 2.b.).

Prison conditions were harsh but not life threatening. Facilities were overcrowded, and food was inadequate. Women and men were held separately, and juveniles were separated from adults. Because of overcrowding, some pre-trial prisoners were held with convicted prisoners.

The Government permitted human rights monitors to make prison visits; however, no such requests were made during the year.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, and the Government generally observed these prohibitions. However, on April 17, security forces arrested and detained 37 demonstrators, some of whom reported that they were beaten while in custody; all 37 were released after 5 days (see Section 2.b.).

The police force, under the Ministry of Defense, was ineffective and widely viewed as corrupt, despite the Government's replacement of two police directors during the year, ostensibly to improve police service. The Government agreed to reform the Criminal Investigation Police, a separate agency under the Ministry of Justice that conducted criminal investigations, as part of negotiations to end the attempted July coup; however, no action was taken during the year.

The Constitution does not prohibit forced exile; however, the Government did not use it.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, however, the judicial system at times was subject to political influence or manipulation. The Government has important powers relating to the judiciary, including setting salaries for judges and all ministerial employees. Government salaries remained low, and suspicion persisted that judges may be tempted to accept bribes (see Section 6.e.).

The legal system was based on a Portuguese model. The court system had two levels: Circuit courts and the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court was the appellate court of last resort.

The Constitution provides for the right to fair public trial, the right of appeal, and the right to legal representation. However, in practice, the judicial infrastructure suffered from severe budgetary constraints, inadequate facilities, and a shortage of trained judges and lawyers, which caused delays from 3 to 9 months in bringing cases to court and greatly hindered investigations in criminal cases. To address the backlog during the year, the Government held a 2-week trial marathon in which three or four cases were heard daily for 14 consecutive days.

There were no reports of political prisoners.

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

The Constitution prohibits such actions, and the Government generally respected these prohibitions.

2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, and the Government generally respected these rights. A Superior Council for Press, made up of representatives from each branch of the media, acts as an arbitration board in cases of disputes; however, the Council has been inactive for several years.

Two government-run and six independent newspapers and newsletters were published sporadically, usually on a monthly or bi-weekly basis; resource constraints determined publishing frequency.

All parties freely distributed newsletters and press releases stating their views and criticizing the Government, the President, and one another.

Television and radio were state operated. While there were no independent local stations, no laws forbade them. The Voice of America, Radio International Portugal, and Radio France International were rebroadcast locally. The law grants all opposition parties access to the state-run media, including a minimum of 3 minutes per month on television.

On March 24, former Prime Minister Costa was convicted of defamation and calumny in a lawsuit brought by President Menezes. Costa, who had accused Menezes in an open letter to the National Assembly of mismanaging government funds and usurping government authority, was sentenced to a 1-month suspended sentence and a fine of $66 (600,000 dobras).

The Government did not restrict access to, or the use of, email, the Internet, or satellite telephones. The only domestic Internet service provider was a joint venture in which the Government's Post and Telecommunications Office was a minority partner. The cost of Internet access remained high; consequently, access remained limited in practice.

The Government did not restrict academic freedom.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and the Government generally respected these rights in practice. The Government required that requests for authorization for large-scale events be filed 48 hours in advance, but it usually granted the appropriate permits.

On April 17, local artisans marched on the Prime Minister's office to protest the Government's sale of land that had been promised to them. After security forces arrived to disperse the demonstration, shots were fired, resulting in the death of one demonstrator and the injuring of three others. Police investigators could not determine whether the shots had been fired by demonstrators or security forces; observers noted that security forces were poorly trained in crowd control.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for religious freedom and the Government generally respected this right in practice.

For a more detailed discussion, see the 2003 International Religious Freedom Report.

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

The Constitution provides for these rights, and the Government generally respected them in practice.

After the July 16 attempted military coup, a curfew was imposed, and the International Airport was closed; by July 18, the Airport was reopened and the curfew lifted.

The law does not include provisions for the granting of refugee status or asylum to persons who meet the definition in the 1951 U.N. Convention Regarding the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol; however, in practice, the Government granted refugee status or asylum. There were no reports of the forced return of persons to a country where they feared persecution. The Government cooperated with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees.

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

The Constitution provides citizens with the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens exercised this right in practice through periodic, free, and fair elections held on the basis of universal suffrage. The Constitution provides for the election of the President, who as Head of State approves the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister appoints ministers of the Government.

President Menezes was elected in July 2001; in December 2001, he dissolved the National Assembly and called for new elections. In a March 2002 election deemed free and fair by international observers, the MLSTP won 24 seats, the MDFM coalition took 23 seats, and the Ue-Kedadji coalition won 8 seats; Gabriel Arcanjo Ferreira da Costa was named Prime Minister. In September 2002, President Menezes dismissed Costa and his government, and on October 2002, a 13-member coalition government was formed under Maria das Neves, the first woman to hold the position of Prime Minister.

On July 16, Major Fernando Pereira, head of the country's military training center, led a military coup attempt while President Menezes was visiting Nigeria. Coup leaders, who detained members of the Government, took over the national radio station, and closed the Airport, said they were frustrated by military living conditions and wage arrears, and demanded reform of the Criminal Investigation Police. On July 23, President Menezes resumed control of the Government after signing a framework agreement with the rebels to reform the military, establish legal and regulatory measures to manage the country's new oil wealth, and to initiate a national forum to establish developmental priorities. On November 27, the Commission of Guarantee, an international body established to oversee the implementation of the framework agreement, convened its first meeting.

There were 5 women in the 55-seat National Assembly, and women held 5 of 13 seats in the Cabinet. The Prime Minister and the President of the 3-member Supreme Court were women.

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

A small number of domestic human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials generally were cooperative and responsive to their views.

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

The Constitution provides for the equality of all citizens regardless of sex, race, racial origin, political tendency, creed, or philosophic conviction. The Government actively enforced these provisions.


While the extent of the problem was unknown, domestic violence against women occurred, including rape. Although women have the right to legal recourse – including against spouses – many were reluctant to bring legal action or were ignorant of their rights under the law. Tradition inhibits women from taking domestic disputes outside the family.

The Constitution stipulates that women and men have equal political, economic, and social rights. While many women have access to opportunities in education, business, and government, in practice, women still encountered significant societal discrimination. Traditional beliefs left women with most child-rearing responsibilities and with less access to education and to professions; a high teenage pregnancy rate further reduced economic opportunities for women. An estimated 70 percent of households were headed by women.


A number of government and donor-funded programs operated to improve conditions for children, notably an ongoing malaria control project and acquisition of school and medical equipment.

Nutrition, maternity and infant care, and access to basic health services have improved, especially in urban areas. Mistreatment of children was not widespread; however, there were few protections for orphans and abandoned children.

Education was universal, compulsory through the 6th grade, and tuition-free to the age of 15. Students were responsible for buying books and uniforms; however, the Government provided both to children from poor families. Enrollment in primary school was estimated at 74 percent. After grade 6 or age 15, whichever came first, education was no longer free. There were no differences between the treatment of girls and boys in regard to education.

During the year, a social services program tried to collect street children in a center where they received classes and training. Conditions at the center were good; however, because of overcrowding, some children were sent back to their families at night, and these children frequently ran away. Children who stayed full time at the center did not run away.

Persons with Disabilities

The law does not mandate access to buildings, transportation, or services for persons with disabilities. There were no reports of discrimination against such persons; however, local organizations have criticized the Government for not implementing accessibility programs for persons with disabilities as it promised.

6. Worker Rights

a. Right of Association

The Constitution provides for freedom of association, and workers generally exercised this right in practice. Few unions exist in the very small formal wage sector. The two unions are the General Union of Workers and the National Organization of Workers of Sao Tome and Principe; government workers and members of farmers' cooperatives belonged to one of these unions. Independent cooperatives took advantage of the Government's land distribution program to attract workers and in many cases to improve production and income significantly. Public sector employees still constituted the majority of wage earners.

There are no laws prohibiting anti-union discrimination; however, there were no reports of such discrimination.

There were no restrictions against trade unions joining federations or affiliating with international bodies, but none have done so.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The Constitution provides that workers may organize and bargain collectively; however, due to its role as the principal employer in the wage sector, the Government remained the key interlocutor for labor on all matters, including wages.

The Constitution provides for the freedom to strike, even by government employees and other essential workers. During the year, there was one strike by civil service workers that was resolved within 1 day through negotiations. Numerous other threats of strikes during the year were resolved through negotiation. There were no laws or regulations prohibiting employers from retaliation against strikers; however, there were no reports of retaliation following strikes.

There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Bonded Labor

The law prohibits forced or bonded labor, including by children, and there were no reports that such practices occurred.

d. Status of Child Labor Practices and Minimum Age for Employment

Child labor was a problem. Employers in the formal wage sector generally respected the legally mandated minimum employment age of 18. The law prohibits minors from working more than 7 hours a day and 35 hours a week. Children were engaged in labor in subsistence agriculture, on plantations, and in informal commerce, sometimes from an early age. Although no cases of child labor abuses have been prosecuted, the law states that employers of underage workers can be fined.

The Government has not ratified International Labor Organization Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labor.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Working conditions on many of the cocoa plantations – the largest wage employment sector – were extremely harsh. The legal minimum wage was $23.50 (220,000 dobras) per month, with an additional stipend of $2.20 (20,000 dobras) for civil servants. The average salary for plantation workers did not provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family, and the real value of their pay was further eroded by a 9 percent rate of inflation. Working two or more jobs was so common that the Government modified its hours so civil servants could pursue a second career; the labor law specifies areas in which civil servants may work if they pursue a second job. Privatization of the plantation sector generally eliminated fringe benefits provided when plantation production was controlled by the State. In principle, workers and their families were provided free (but inadequate) housing, rudimentary education for their children, and health care, as well as the privilege of reduced prices and credit at the "company store"; however, corruption was widespread, and workers often were forced to pay higher prices on the open market to obtain the goods theoretically provided at a discount as part of their compensation.

Civil servants in "strategic sectors," such as the court system, the ministries of finance, customs, education, and the Criminal Investigation Police, earned up to 400 percent more than their counterparts in the remainder of the public sector.

The legal workweek was 40 hours, with 48 consecutive hours mandated for rest. Shopkeepers worked 48 hours a week. The law prescribes basic occupational health and safety standards. Inspectors for the Ministry of Justice and Labor were responsible for enforcement of these standards; however, resource constraints hindered their efforts. Employees had the right to leave unsafe working conditions.

f. Trafficking in Persons

The law prohibits trafficking in persons, and there were no reports that persons were trafficked to, from, or within the country.


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