2008 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - Sao Tome and Principe

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
February 25, 2009

The Democratic Republic of Sao Tome and Principe is a multiparty constitutional democracy with a population of approximately 206,000. The chief of state is President Fradique De Menezes, and the head of government, chosen by the National Assembly and approved by the president, is Prime Minister Joachim Rafael Branco. International observers deemed presidential and legislative elections, held in 2006, to have been free and fair. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control of the security forces.

The government generally respected the human rights of its citizens. However, there were problems in some areas, including harsh prison conditions, prolonged pretrial detention, official corruption, impunity, violence and discrimination against women, child labor, and harsh labor conditions.


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

a. Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life

There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.

Police officer Larry Alberto Paris remained in pretrial detention for the 2006 shooting of Gustavo Sidonio Pinto.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

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

The constitution and law prohibit such practices, and security forces generally observed these prohibitions.

The public prosecutor's investigation into the 2006 shooting of Argentino dos Ramos Taty remained open. Soldiers accompanying forestry guards shot and injured Taty, who was cutting a log on private property.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions were harsh but generally not life threatening. Facilities were overcrowded, sanitary and medical conditions were poor, and food was inadequate. Pretrial prisoners were held with convicted prisoners, and juveniles were held with adults. There was one prison and no jails or detention centers. In general police stations had a small room or space to incarcerate an offender for brief periods.

The government permitted human rights monitors to visit the prison; however, there were no visits during the year.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, and the government generally observed these prohibitions.

Role of the Police and Security Apparatus

In June, with the formation of the 13th constitutional government in the country's history, the national police and immigration service came under the control of a new ministry, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Government Reforms, and Civilian Protection. The Ministry of National Defense continues to supervise and control the military. Despite increased personnel and training offered throughout the year, the police remained ineffective and were widely viewed as corrupt. Impunity was a problem, and efforts to reform the Criminal Investigation Police, a separate agency under the Ministry of Justice, were unsuccessful, primarily due to inadequate resources.

In January the Supreme Court ruled that 10 members of the now-disbanded Special Intervention Police Unit ("Ninjas") should be released on probation; they had been arrested in October and November 2007 for a series of armed sieges of police headquarters in a dispute over back pay, which also culminated in the death of one Ninja.

Arrest and Detention

The law requires arrest warrants issued by an authorized official to apprehend suspects, unless the suspect is caught during the commission of a crime. The law requires a determination within 48 hours of the legality of a detention, and authorities generally respected this right. Detainees are to be informed promptly of charges against them. There was a functioning bail system.

Severe budgetary constraints, inadequate facilities, a shortage of trained judges and lawyers, and political instability resulted in lengthy pretrial detention. According to the director of the Sao Tome prison, 34 percent of the country's prisoners were awaiting trial in 2007, and some pretrial detainees had been held for more than a year.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary; however, at times the judicial system was subject to political influence or manipulation. Judicial salaries remained low, and credible suspicions persisted that judges were tempted to accept bribes. In 2006 the government took steps that proved somewhat helpful to strengthen the judiciary by creating the new Constitutional Court and decreasing docket backlogs to reduce the number of persons in pretrial detention.

The legal system is based on the Portuguese model. The court system has three levels: circuit courts, the Supreme Court, and the Constitutional Court, which is the highest judicial authority.

Trial Procedures

The constitution provides for the right to a fair public trial by a judge (juries are not used), the right of appeal, the right to legal representation, and, if a person is indigent, the right to an attorney provided by the state. Defendants are presumed innocent, have the right to confront their accusers, confront witnesses, access government evidence, and present evidence and witnesses on their own behalf. However, inadequate resources continued to result in lengthy pretrial detention and greatly hindered investigations in criminal cases.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

The same courts consider both criminal and civil cases, but different procedures are used in civil cases. Plaintiffs may bring lawsuits seeking damages for, or cessation of, a human rights violation; there are also administrative and judicial remedies for alleged wrongs.

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

The constitution and law prohibit such actions, and the government generally respected these prohibitions.

2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and of the press, and the government generally respected these rights; however, journalists practiced self-censorship.

Individuals could privately or publicly criticize the government, including specific officials, without fear of reprisal. There were no reports of the government impeding criticism.

Two government-run and seven independent newspapers and newsletters were published sporadically, usually on a monthly or biweekly basis; resource constraints determined publishing frequency. International media operated freely.

The government operated television and radio stations. The Voice of America, Radio International Portugal, and Radio France International also were rebroadcast locally. The law grants all opposition parties access to the state-run media, including a minimum of three minutes per month on television.

Internet Freedom

There were no government restrictions on access to the Internet or reports that the government monitored e-mail or Internet chat rooms. Individuals and groups could engage in the peaceful expression of views via the Internet, including by e-mail. Severe lack of infrastructure, including inadequate electricity and communications networks, limited public access to the Internet.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution and law provide for freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

c. Freedom of Religion

The constitution and law provide for freedom of religion, and the government generally respected this right.

Societal Abuses and Discrimination

There were no reports of discrimination against members of religious groups. There was no known Jewish community and no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

For a more detailed discussion, see the 2008 International Religious Freedom Report.

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

The constitution and law provide for freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

The law does not prohibit forced exile; however, there were no reports that the government used it.

Protection of Refugees

The law does not specifically provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status in accordance with the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. In practice the government provided protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened. During the year there were no known requests for refugee or asylum status. In the past the government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees and asylum seekers.

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

The constitution and law provide citizens the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens exercised this right in practice through periodic and generally free and fair elections based on universal suffrage.

Elections and Political Participation

The 2006 legislative elections gave a plurality of seats in the National Assembly to a coalition of parties, the Democratic Movement of Forces for Change/Party for Democratic Convergence (MDFM/PCD), supporting President De Menezes. The MDFM/PCD subsequently formed a government. President De Menezes was reelected in 2006 with 60 percent of the vote. International observers deemed both elections generally free and fair. Also in 2006, for the first time in more than a decade, local elections were held; on the same date, regional elections were held on the island of Principe. The MDFM/PCD won control of five of the six districts in these elections; the principal opposition party, the Movement for the Liberation of Sao Tome and Principe (MLSTP/PSD), won one district, and a new party, Novo Rumo, won the presidency of the regional government on Principe.

Political parties operated without restriction or government interference.

Women held positions throughout the government, including two seats in the 55-seat National Assembly, four of 13 cabinet positions, one seat on the three-member Supreme Court, and two judgeships in the circuit courts.

Government Corruption and Transparency

The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption; however, the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.

Official corruption was widespread. The World Bank's 2008 Worldwide Governance Indicators reflected that corruption was a serious problem. Several high-level officials, including one former prime minister, were brought before the tribunal on corruption charges for their alleged involvement in the disappearance of millions of dollars from the government's foreign aid fund. The trial was suspended December 22 and was set to resume on January 30, 2009.

In 2005 the attorney general presented to the National Assembly the results of his investigation into allegations of corruption in the awarding of exploration and/or production rights to certain oil blocks. The investigation uncovered serious procedural deficiencies in the process and raised questions about the actions of members of the current and former governments. Lack of cooperation from Nigerian authorities (whose government shares control of some of the oil blocks) impeded follow-up, and no further action was taken by year's end. Low salaries for civil servants contributed to public corruption.

Public officials were not subject to financial disclosure laws.

There are no laws that provide for public access to government information; however, there were no reports that the government restricted access to information by citizens or noncitizens, including foreign media.

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

In the past a small number of domestic human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Because of the general improvement in respect for human rights, such groups generally remained inactive. Government officials generally were cooperative and responsive to their views.

5. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

The constitution provides for the equality of all citizens regardless of gender, race, social origin or status, political views, creed, philosophical convictions, disability, or language; nevertheless, women faced discrimination. The Gender Equality Institute within the Office of Women's Affairs held numerous seminars and workshops to raise awareness about discrimination against women.


Rape, including spousal rape, is illegal and punishable by two to 12 years' imprisonment. Rape occurred occasionally, with prosecution most likely in cases where there was evidence of violent assault as well as rape or if the victim was a minor. However, no statistics on prosecutions were available. Government family planning clinics and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) sought to combat rape by raising awareness of the problem.

Reports of domestic violence, including rape, against women increased. 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 inhibited women from taking domestic disputes outside the family. The law does not specifically address domestic violence; however, there are provisions for assault that may be used in cases of domestic violence. If the victim misses fewer than 10 days of work, the penalty for assault is six months in prison, while for 10 to 20 workdays missed the sentence is one year, and so forth. The law was strictly enforced, including in cases of domestic violence, but there was no data on the number of prosecutions for domestic violence. The Office of Women's Affairs maintained a counseling center with a hot line. While the hot line did not receive many calls due to unreliable telephone service, the counseling center received numerous walk-ins.

Prostitution is illegal but did occur. Prostitution was rare in the past, but observers estimated its prevalence was increasing with the growing number of foreign workers in the country.

The law does not prohibit sexual harassment, and it was a problem. No data was available on its extent.

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, women in general continued to encounter significant societal discrimination. Traditional beliefs left women with most child-rearing responsibilities and with less access to education or entry into the professions. A high teenage pregnancy rate further reduced economic opportunities for women.


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

By law education is universal, compulsory through sixth grade, and tuition-free to the age of 15 or sixth grade. In practice many rural students stopped attending school after the fourth grade.

Mistreatment of children was not widespread; however, there were few protections for orphans and abandoned children.

Child labor was a problem.

In 2007 the Ministry of Labor and Solidarity began a social services program that collected street children in three centers, where they attended classes and received training. Conditions at the centers were good; however, because of overcrowding, some children were returned to their families to sleep at night, and a few of these children ran away.

Trafficking in Persons

The law prohibits trafficking in persons, and there were no reports that persons were trafficked to, from, or within the country. In 2007 the UN Children's Fund and the Economic Community of Central African States held a conference in the country that addressed trafficking in persons.

Persons with Disabilities

The law does not prohibit discrimination against persons with physical or mental disabilities; however, there were no reports of discrimination against such persons. The law does not mandate access to buildings, transportation, or services for persons with disabilities. Local NGOs that criticized the government in the past for not implementing accessibility programs for such persons were not active during the year.

Other Societal Abuses and Discrimination

There was societal discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Persons with HIV/AIDS were often rejected by their communities and shunned by their families. However, there were no reports that workers were discriminated against due to their HIV/AIDS status. As in the previous year, there were a number of government-sponsored workshops and awareness campaigns to reduce such instances. The government also provided free AIDS testing and distributed antiretroviral drugs to all recognized patients.

6. Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The constitution and law allow workers to form and join unions of their choice without previous authorization or excessive requirements, and workers generally exercised this right in practice. Only two unions existed in the very small formal wage sector: the General Union of Workers and the National Organization of Workers of Sao Tome and Principe. Both represented government workers, who constituted the majority of formal sector wage earners, and members of farmers' cooperatives.

The constitution provides for the freedom to strike, including by government employees and other essential workers, although during the year no strikes occurred.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The constitution and law state that workers may organize and bargain collectively; however, due to its role as the principal employer in the formal wage sector, the government remained the key interlocutor for organized labor on all matters, including wages.

The law does not prohibit retaliation against strikers, but there were no reports of such actions during the year.

There were no laws prohibiting antiunion discrimination; however, there were no reports such discrimination occurred.

There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

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

d. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

Employers in the formal wage sector generally respected the legally mandated minimum employment age of 18; however, child labor was a problem. The law prohibits minors from working more than seven hours a day and 35 hours a week. Children worked in subsistence agriculture, on plantations, in informal commerce, and in domestic work. No cases of child labor abuses were prosecuted, although the law states that employers of underage workers can be fined. The Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcing child labor laws.

There were initiatives taken to prevent child labor. The Ministry of Education extended compulsory school attendance from the fourth to the sixth grade, and the government granted some assistance to several low-income families to keep their children in school. The Ministry of Labor also created teams of labor inspectors to increase inspections at work sites.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

There is no national minimum wage. Although the legal minimum wage for civil servants increased in 2007 from 500,000 dobras ($35) to 650,000 dobras ($46) per month, it was insufficient to provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family. Working two or more jobs was common. The labor law specifies occupations in which civil servants may work if they pursue a second job. Civil servants in "strategic sectors," such as the court system, the Ministries of Finance, Ccustoms, and Education, and the Criminal Investigation Police, earned up to 400 percent more than other public sector employees.

Working conditions on many of the cocoa plantations – the largest informal wage sector – were extremely harsh. The average salary for plantation workers did not provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family, and the purchasing power of their pay was further eroded by a high rate of inflation.

The legal workweek is 40 hours, with 48 consecutive hours mandated for rest. However, shopkeepers could work 48 hours a week. The law provides for compensation for overtime work. The law prescribes basic occupational health and safety standards; however, due to resource constraints, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Labor and Solidarity's enforcement of these standards was not effective. Employees have the right to leave unsafe working conditions, but none sought to do so, and enforcement of the right was very limited.


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