Niger activists arrested over Areva protest before François Hollande visit

Uranium deal between French nuclear firm and Niger government triggers demonstrations, followed by arrests

Transparency campaigners in Niger have been arrested shortly before the French president's visit to Niamey.

François Hollande arrived in the Nigerien capital on Friday to discuss the deployment of French troops as part of a strategy for securing the wider Sahelian region. Approximately 10 activists, including Ali Idrissa, the national co-ordinator of the Publish What You Pay (PWYP) coalition, were arrested at their homes that morning.

The group had held a joint press conference on Thursday calling for peaceful demonstrations during Hollande's visit. They are calling for Areva, the French state-owned nuclear company, and the Nigerien government to publish the details of a new uranium extraction contract.

"This goes to show that we're living in a dictatorship," Idrissa said from his office in Niamey after being released. "We wanted to exercise our democratic right to protest. This is really serious."

He said he had been treated well in detention, but was told the police would return to his office after Hollande's visit to take him to court. His fellow campaigners, including the trade union activist Solli Ramatou, remain in detention. Idrissa was unclear exactly how many people had been arrested.

Niger agreed terms with Areva in May over the extraction of uranium from its mines in the north, after months of fractious negotiations. Although the government insisted it had secured the best deal for its people, including increased investment in the sector and the promise that Nigeriens would be promoted to top management, it has yet to disclose the precise terms of the agreement.

PWYP and other groups have repeatedly asked for full transparency and confirmation that Areva had agreed to increase the royalty rate it pays from 5% to 12%, as required by the country's 2006 mining code. A constitution, passed in 2010 by the transitional government that ruled for a year after a coup, stated that by law all contracts agreed with natural resource extraction companies must be published.

"We condemn the arrests of Nigerien civil society activists by the government," Alice Powell, from PWYP's head office in London, said. "Niger's citizens should be free to debate how their natural resources should be managed. It is very disappointing to see the government shut down debate in this manner."

The Nigerien government was not available for comment.

This is the second stop in Hollande's west African visit. He is due to arrive in the Chadian capital, N'Djamena, on Saturday, which has agreed to host the command centre for the French regional deployment to Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad.

The soldiers to be sent to Niger are expected to be supporting a US surveillance drones base, which opened last year to monitor the activities of Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.


Celeste Hicks

The GuardianTramp

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