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Madagascar court upholds sentence for environmental activist

Banner image: A blue coua (Coua caerulea) in Ranomafana National Park, about 30 miles west of Vohilava. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

Banner image: A blue coua (Coua caerulea) in Ranomafana National Park, about 30 miles west of Vohilava. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

  • In September 2017 a farmer named Raleva questioned a mining company about its permits during a meeting in his village in southeastern Madagascar. He was promptly arrested on charges of impersonating a local official.
  • In October, he was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison, but immediately released on parole — a common tactic in Madagascar that appears to be aimed at silencing opposition.
  • On May 22, an appeals court announced its decision to uphold the conviction.
  • Advocacy groups are now trying to put together a legal team that can take the case to Madagascar’s Supreme Court.

A farmer turned environmental activist who was convicted on criminal charges after questioning a mining company about its permits has had his appeal denied by a court in Madagascar.

The ruling last week extends a worrying pattern of Madagascar courts taking a hard stance against environmental activists in recent years. `

The case against the farmer, who goes by the name Raleva, began last September. That’s when he confronted representatives from a Chinese-Malagasy gold mining company owned by a woman named Gianna Mac Lai Sime during a meeting in his village of Vohilava, near the city of Mananjary in the southeastern part of the country. When Raleva asked to see the company’s permits, which had not in fact been granted, he was arrested on charges of impersonating a local official that local people and human rights groups say were trumped up.

In October, after about a month in pre-trial detention, Raleva was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison, but immediately released on parole. Many activists are given suspended sentences in this way. The authorities seem to be offering them a sort of conditional freedom in exchange for keeping quiet, according to human rights groups.

Raleva and his team filed an appeal, and the case went in front of the Fianarantsoa Court of Appeals on April 24. On May 22, the court announced its decision to uphold the conviction.

Raleva just before he was taken away by the authorities on September 27 after publicly questioning a gold mining project near his village, Vohilava. Image by Anonymous.

Human rights groups have criticized the court’s decision. “It … sends a chilling message to anyone else willing to speak out for what they believe is right, that they can end up in jail for doing so,” Tamara Léger, Madagascar program adviser at Amnesty International, wrote in an email to Mongabay. “This is how civil society space eventually gets shut down, with activists who end up practicing self-censorship in order to protect themselves and their families.”

“[I]t is especially disappointing that the Chinese company and their local allies have more influence on the justice system than all the communities and civil society and human rights organizations working together,” Zo Randriamaro, coordinator of the Research and Support Center for Development Alternatives – Indian Ocean (CRAAD-OI), a civil society group based in Antananarivo, wrote in an email to Mongabay. Randriamaro said Madagascar’s justice system is corrupt and dysfunctional.

Map shows the location of Vohilava, Madagascar, Raleva’s village. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

At the original trial in October, Raleva was convicted of “usurpation of title” for allegedly claiming to be the chef de district of Mananjary, a local official, at the September meeting. Raleva’s supporters insist he would have had no reason to pretend to be a government official at a meeting with his fellow villagers, who know he is a farmer. The actual chef de district of Mananjary was also at the meeting to support the mining company, and it was he who ordered Raleva’s arrest, according to people in attendance.

Advocacy groups including Amnesty International and CRAAD-OI are now trying to put together a legal team that can take the case to Madagascar’s Supreme Court.

The prime minister’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the ruling by the appeals court.

Sime’s company made several attempts to start work in Vohilava in 2016 and 2017, but has not worked there since shortly after the meeting last year. However, the company continues to operate in the nearby community of Ambaladara — illegally,  according to local sources.

Banner image: A blue coua (Coua caerulea) in Ranomafana National Park, about 30 miles west of Vohilava. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

Correction 10/21/20: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the owner of the gold mining operation in Vohilava. It is Gianna Mac Lai Sime, not Gianna Mac Lai Sima. We regret the error.

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