Free Ramón Esono Ebalé!

Artist, activist and writer Ramón Esono Ebalé was not even two years old when Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo became president of Equatorial Guinea in 1979. Right now, President Obiang is still in power while Ramón has been held in prison without charge since 16 September for exercising his right to freedom of expression.

As a cartoonist using the alias Jamón y Queso, Ramón’s work has received critical acclaim and last month, Cartoonists Rights Network International awarded him the 2017 Award for Courage in Editorial Cartooning.

A well-known critic of President Obiang and his government, Ramón has used his artwork and cartoons to satirise the government of Equatorial Guinea and highlight extreme inequality within the country.

Photo: Justin Kasereka

The space for dissent in this small west African country with a population of just 1.2 million is highly restricted and various human rights organisations have documented the routine harassment of human rights defenders, as well as a recent clampdown on artists and cultural groups. In one notorious incident this July, an artist was detained for a song he had released in support of taxi drivers protesting an increase in licensing fees.

Ramón has been living in Paraguay since 2011, and there, his creative output has flourished and he has obtained a significant following online. Although much of his work has been inaccessible in Equatorial Guinea – with websites displaying his artwork blocked – it is claimed that those in government circles have been following his work closely.

More than 70 days and counting…

Ramón only returned to Equatorial Guinea recently to renew his passport, as he was due to join his family in El Salvador where they had moved. He had been waiting for several weeks when he was arrested on 16 September in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea, following a dinner with two friends of Spanish nationality. All three were detained and questioned at the Central Police station, but Ramón’s friends were released after a few hours.

Ramón was initially questioned by security agents in relation to his cartoons. According to reports, the police asked about his drawings of the President and other high-ranking officials and his political leanings. He was told his drawings were offensive to the President and that his blog had text that was insulting and defamatory. He was also told that people should only participate in politics if they are associated with a political party.

News outlets reported a few days later that he was being investigated for alleged money laundering and counterfeiting money.

He was presented before a judge on 20 September where he was asked about these allegations and then sent to Black Beach prison in Malabo where he has been held ever since.

He has yet to be charged with an offence. His family and friends believe these accusations are part of a strategy to discredit him.

In early October Ramón’s lawyers submitted a request to cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses, as they believe this will prove there is no case against Ramón. However, as 30 November marks the end of the judicial year in Equatorial Guinea, Ramón is likely to remain in prison until at least 16 January.

PEN International is part of a coalition of organisations that believe that Ramón Esono Ebalé is being unjustly detained in relation to his activism and work, in violation of his right to freedom of expression. We are calling on the authorities to release him immediately and unconditionally.

Artists from around the world have also joined the #FreeNseRamón campaign by contributing drawings in support of Ramón. As part of PEN International’s annual Day of the Imprisoned Writer on 15 November, the British writer Neil Gaiman wrote a message of solidarity to Ramón.

You too can join the campaign to free him by signing a petition calling for his release.