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(New York) - The government of Côte d’Ivoire has responded to an army rebellion by committing abuses against innocent civilians, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Government forces have killed and arrested individuals on the basis solely of their ethnicity, religion or support for the opposition party.

The 16-page report, “Côte d’Ivoire: Government Abuses in Response to Army Revolt,” documents security force raids after the attempted coup which began on September 19, 2002. The raids targeted entire neighborhoods in which northerners or non-Ivorians were arbitrarily arrested and their houses razed. Others were similarly targeted for their political affiliation or presumed status as an “assailant,” a word used by the government to describe anyone it views as supporting the army mutiny. The term “terrorist” was also widely used. Local human rights defenders are also living in fear, and many have gone into hiding.

“Legitimate security measures are one thing, but targeting individuals just on the basis of their ethnic group or religion is completely unacceptable,” said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. “Even in a time of emergency, basic human rights must be respected.”

Human Rights Watch researchers visited Côte d’Ivoire in late October, following the attacks launched by dissident soldiers on September 19.

Human Rights Watch also expressed concern at reported abuses by the dissident soldiers — calling themselves the Patriotic Movement of Côte d’Ivoire (Mouvement Patriotique de Côte d’Ivoire, MPCI) — who launched the attacks and remain in control of several towns. Although researchers could not visit rebel-held areas, due to security concerns, there are credible reports in those areas of unlawful killings and detentions.

Government policy has deliberately exacerbated tensions among Ivorians of different ethnic and religious backgrounds over the last few years, and also failed to address the violence and intimidation that marred presidential and parliamentary elections of late 2000.

“This downward spiral in respect for human rights is not inevitable,” said Takirambudde. “The way to stop that spiral is to bring to justice the people who are responsible for abuses. Without such action, Côte d’Ivoire could plunge into the sort of brutal war well known to neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone.”

In mid-October, people dressed in military uniform killed several dozen civilians—Ivorian Muslims, Malians and Burkinabés—in Daloa, soon after the government gained control of the town. In the face of international criticism, the government has ordered an inquiry into this mass killing.

Human Rights Watch called on the government of Côte d’Ivoire to take steps immediately to halt abuses. In particular, the Ivorian government should:

  • Publicly acknowledge and condemn the unlawful killings of alleged ”assailants” and opposition sympathisers, provide comprehensive public information on their killings and compensation to the families, and facilitate access for the families to the criminal justice system; make public statements that no person should be arrested or attacked on the basis of ethnic, religious or national identity.
  • Suspend from active duty, investigate, and prosecute where appropriate all members of the security forces accused of unlawful killings, arrests or extortion.
  • Ensure that the criminal justice system effectively responds to allegations that human rights abuses have been committed, paying particular attention to bringing to justice those responsible for assaults motivated by suspicion of foreigners, Muslims, or northerners.

Human Rights Watch also called on the rebel forces to ensure that all its combatants are instructed to respect the human rights of all civilians and to treat all captives in accordance with international humanitarian law.

A ceasefire officially came into force on October 18, 2002 and appears to be holding — though both sides have been strengthening their military positions. There are hopes that peace talks mediated by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) may lead to an end to hostilities and a resolution of the main issues underlying the crisis. Human Rights Watch urged ECOWAS to ensure that an end to impunity for human rights abuses be a key part of any peace agreement.

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