DAKAR, Senegal – Human rights groups are calling on a foundation named for a late U.S. civil rights leader to cancel an upcoming summit in Equatorial Guinea, where the government is accused of torturing political opponents and other human rights abuses.
The Leon H. Sullivan Foundation has organized an Aug. 20-24 gathering at a lavish complex that includes an 18-hole golf course, a five-star hotel and a spa in a West African country where many lack access to electricity and running water.
Among the stated objectives is to "create an atmosphere of open dialogue about the state of human rights" in Africa. Activists say that's unlikely to happen in Equatorial Guinea, which has one of the worst human rights records on the continent.
"The Sullivan Foundation is destroying the legacy of its namesake by working hand-in-hand with one of the most repressive, exploitative regimes in Africa's history," said Thor Halvorssen, president of the Washington-based Human Rights Foundation.
President Teodoro Obiang Nguema has ruled Equatorial Guinea since seizing power in a 1979 coup and is now Africa's longest-serving ruler. The most recent human rights report from the U.S. State Department notes widespread official corruption, along with the denial of basic political rights and other human rights abuses.
Sullivan's daughter, Hope Sullivan Masters, reacted to the criticism in a series of Tweets this week that were later deleted. One read: "Racism is alive and well. visit EG, don't rant. Courage over cowardice."
She also issued a statement Monday on the foundation's website, calling it a "vile assertion" that the event would tarnish her father's legacy.
"The truth is that President Obiang has modernized his country and has implemented major political reforms," she said.
"If these critics wish, they are more than welcome to attend the summit and see for themselves the advancements made by President Obiang for his country," she added.
Tutu Alicante, executive director of the non-governmental organization EG Justice, said Masters is "living in an alternate universe." His organization has received reports of at least five extrajudicial killings in the country since June.
"Nothing has changed in Equatorial Guinea in terms of people being arbitrarily detained, tortured, killed, and held in prison indefinitely without charge," he said.
Visas to Equatorial Guinea remain difficult to obtain for many foreigners. Journalists also have been detained for attempting to photograph impoverished areas of the capital, and others have been followed around by government minders.
Per capita income in Equatorial Guinea has ballooned to more than $27,000 a year, according to World Bank figures. That's nearly on par with former colonizer Spain and makes Equatorial Guinea the richest nation in sub-Saharan Africa.
Yet Equatorial Guinea has the 15th highest infant mortality rate in the world, while Spain placed 213th, according to the latest statistics in the CIA World Factbook.
Lisa Misol, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said her organization is not calling for an outright boycott of the event but is encouraging participants to "look behind the curtain of new construction and see the needless poverty and the harsh repression that people are living under every day."
"We see a very serious risk that the event is going to be used by the president to falsely portray himself as a champion of human rights," Misol said.
The Rev. Leon Sullivan, a U.S. civil rights crusader who campaigned against apartheid in South Africa, died in 2001.
He was best known for devising an international code of business conduct known as the Sullivan Principles. Companies doing business in South Africa were encouraged to give opportunities to black workers and help local communities.
The summit in Equatorial Guinea will be the foundation's ninth such meeting in Africa since 1991. The group previously has held gatherings in Zimbabwe and Gabon — countries also criticized for their human rights records — along with meetings in Ivory Coast, Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria and Tanzania.
Aly Ramji, spokesman for the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation, said each of those governments provided various forms of support to event organizers.
The venue in Equatorial Guinea had been offered as a location to host the summit, he said. While others may not agree with the choice of nation, he said the disagreement wouldn't stop the foundation from hosting its summit there.
"If no one is willing to listen to the voice of reform, and to a country that is attempting to make amends and improve its image, then how will a country ever demonstrate to the global community its progress?" he said.
Leon Sullivan Foundation: http://thesullivanfoundation.org
Human Rights Foundation: http://www.humanrightsfoundation.org