Mr. Ona is facing possible jail time and a fee of nearly $10,000.00 US after being convicted of defamation by a Gabonese court for speaking out against suspected government corruption.
Mr. Goldman’s letter, which calls for President Bongo to overturn Ona’s sentence, is the most recent in a series of actions taken by the Goldman Prize calling for justice for Mr. Ona.
The global network of Goldman Prize recipients sent an open letter to President Ali Bongo in May 2013, which was signed by over 50 Goldman Prize recipients and circulated on their networks.
At the 2013 Goldman Prize award ceremony in Washington, DC, John Goldman, Vice President of the Goldman Environmental Foundation, affirmed the Prize’s support for Mr. Ona during his remarks to the audience.
Below is a copy of the letter sent by Mr. Doug Goldman:
July 10, 2013
His Excellency Ali Bongo Ondimba
President de la Republique du Gabon
Dear President Bongo:
I am the President of the Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s largest and most important award honoring grassroots environmental leaders. For the past few weeks, all of us associated with the Goldman Prize have been observing most attentively your country's actions regarding one of our distinguished Prize winners - Marc Ona Essangui.
For his work to protect the rainforests of Gabon from mining interests that threatened to destroy those areas, Mr. Ona received the 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa. Indeed, the fact that you, Sir, declared a national park encompassing some 10 percent of Gabon's landmass was a critical success story that resulted in Mr. Ona being recognized by us. Given your important role in creating a major environmental achievement that resulted in a citizen of your country being awarded such an important, international award, we are greatly surprised and deeply disappointed by the recent actions taken against Mr. Ona.
The world recognizes Marc Ona Essangui as a leader of the civil society movement to protect Gabon's natural environment. Combined with the recognition provided by winning the Goldman Prize, Mr. Ona is respected throughout our world as a leader in both the environmental and civil society movements. To deny him his rights under African law is a dangerous and unfortunate action - one that is not appropriate to such an important leader and hero for Gabon and the environment!
Our understanding of the facts of the case include that he was sentenced in March 2013 by a Gabonese court to six months suspended imprisonment along with a fine of five million Central African francs on the charge of defamation. Apparently, the case focused upon Mr. Ona having spoken publicly about the Gabon government's role in providing industry with land for palm oil and rubber plantations. While his comments may not be encouraging toward your government, we hope that you recognize the importance of hearing the voices in society that support those that need support - including voices that support the environment that we all must protect for the future of our children and their children.
Sir, while you may disagree with Mr. Ona's contentions, we understand that his choosing to speak publicly while questioning his government's actions are activities that are clearly protected under the African Charter along with other international covenants. Indeed, for the Gabon government to deny Mr. Ona his ability to exercise those rights is itself a violation of those covenants. To engage in such actions that are contrary to international law is both ethically and legally unacceptable.
By setting this precedent, your government is telling all of us, as global citizens, that public discussion of Gabon's environmental standards and the government's role in protecting those standards is unwelcome and illegal. Such an action calls the world's attention to Gabon's mistaken and deplorable position that opposes our sacred future on our precious planet.
I sincerely hope that you will choose to review Mr. Ona's case. I respectfully implore you to use your powers to right this wrong by seeing that this unjust sentence is overturned. On behalf of all of us associated with the Goldman Environmental Prize, I request that you engage in whatever actions will assure Gabon's commitment to upholding international covenants and thus ensure both environmental and human rights.
Thank you in advance for your attention to this matter.
Douglas E. Goldman, M.D.
President, Goldman Environmental Foundation