NAIROBI (Reuters) - The tiny Horn of Africa nation Djibouti has witnessed days of anti-government protests after a detained air force pilot said in a video clip he had been tortured, his lawyer said on Monday.
The government did not respond to a request for comment but Djibouti’s ambassador to neighbouring Ethiopia told Reuters the pilot, Fouad Youssuf Ali, had been arrested for treason. The envoy denied that Fouad had been tortured.
“Many spontaneous protests in support of Fouad’s unlawful detention and mistreatment have taken place in Djibouti,” said the lawyer, Zakaria Ali, adding that some 200 people including members of the pilot’s family had been arrested in recent days.
“I visited him on May 13 and saw severe signs of torture on his legs,” Ali added.
Grainy footage posted on social media sites appeared to show people protesting in the streets of Djibouti.
According to social media, the protests started last week after a video clip began circulating online showing the pilot being held in what appeared to be a toilet of a jail.
Asked about the case, Djibouti’s ambassador to Ethiopia, Mohamed Idriss Farah, said the pilot had been arrested on April 9 in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, where he had escaped after attempting to steal and fly a plane to Eritrea.
“He was extradited to Djibouti the following day on charges of treason, as he incited people to rebellion in a video he took in the plane,” Farah said.
“Claims that the pilot has been tortured while in detention are false,” he added. “Those protests were sparked by social media mainly from the diaspora who spread fake news in Djibouti.”
Djibouti is home to both Chinese and U.S. naval bases. Its strategic position on the Gulf of Aden means it overlooks the world’s busiest shipping lanes for oil cargos, but many of its citizens are impoverished and human rights groups say abuses by the security forces are common.
Independent news sites are blocked in Djibouti and journalists often arrested and beaten, global media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres says.
On Monday, the group put out a statement saying two independent Djiboutian journalists covering the story of the pilot had been arrested — Kassim Nouh Abar on June 5 and Mohamed Ibrahim Wais on June 8.
Rashid Abdi, a Nairobi-based Horn of Africa political analyst, warned that there was already widespread anger over poverty and corruption.
“We should not underestimate the ability of the government to be very brutal in its response if the unrest continues,” he said.
Reporting by Nairobi bureau; Editing by Gareth Jones and Catherine Evans