(Conakry, July 6, 2006) – In response to a nationwide strike protesting increases in the prices of rice and fuel, Guinea’s security forces committed murder, rape, assault and theft against demonstrators and bystanders alike, Human Rights Watch said today.
The Guinean government must immediately investigate and prosecute those responsible for the abuses, which occurred during the week of June 12, shortly after Guinea’s main labor unions had called a nationwide strike. Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 50 victims and witnesses to abuses committed in the Guinean capital Conakry and in one of Guinea’s regional capitals, Labé.
Eyewitnesses to 13 killings in Conakry and Labé told Human Rights Watch how security forces fired directly into crowds of unarmed demonstrators. Police and gendarmes also beat other protesters with truncheons and rifle butts.
“The Guinean government cannot allow its security forces to get away with killing unarmed protesters and attacking bystanders,” said Peter Takirambudde, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The lethal use of force against protestors was wholly disproportionate and inappropriate in the circumstances.”
As protestors dispersed into surrounding neighborhoods, police and gendarmes pursued them, rampaging through the homes and businesses of local residents, beating not only the protesters, but also many others, including women, children and elderly men who had not participated in the protests. Two women told Human Rights Watch that they were raped by security forces in their homes. Numerous witnesses described how both during and in the days following the protests, police and gendarmes stole valuables at gunpoint, including cell phones, household electronics and money from both protestors and bystanders.
Many of those interviewed by Human Rights Watch had been arrested and taken to police detention facilities where they reported being beaten with clubs, held for several days, and freed only after family members bribed police officers to secure their release.
On Monday, June 12, four days after Guinea’s main labor unions called a nationwide strike to protest price hikes for basic commodities, secondary students scheduled to take national baccalaureate exams arrived at school to find that there was no one to supervise the tests because the teacher’s union had joined the strike. In response, thousands of students took to the streets of Conakry, Labé, N’zérékore and other towns across the country in protest, chanting anti-government slogans and calling for the government to step down.
In some locations, students and other civilians set up barricades, burned tires, threw rocks at security forces and burned cars. In Labé, students vandalized several government installations, breaking windows and damaging walls at the offices of the governor, mayor and prefect. One witness interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Labé described seeing a group of angry civilians beating a soldier and arguing about whether to burn his motorcycle.
While the official death toll stands at 11, a group of local civil society organizations maintains that 21 people were killed by gunfire from the Guinean security forces during the demonstrations nationwide. In a radio broadcast on June 12, the Guinean government expressed its condolences to victims’ families, but accused opposition parties of trying to destabilize the government by providing finance and equipment to individuals who took part in the demonstrations.
The Guinean government has legal obligations under several international and African human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which require it to respect the right to life and freedoms of expression and assembly. The actions of the security forces during the first weeks of June violated those obligations. Human Rights Watch called on the government to ensure that no more violations occurred and that the victims of all violations were provided a remedy.
Human Rights Watch also called on the Guinean security forces to abide by the U.N. Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials in policing demonstrations. The principles require that law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall as far as possible apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force. Whenever the lawful use of force is unavoidable, law enforcement officials must use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense.
The abuses committed in early June, however, were only the most recent in a series of incidents in which Guinean security forces have fired on unarmed demonstrators. Human Rights Watch interviewed victims and witnesses to a protest in Conakry in February when soldiers fired on demonstrators, resulting in two wounded and one killed, during an earlier nationwide strike to protest increases in basic commodity prices. In November, three protestors in the central Guinean town of Telimélé were reportedly killed after soldiers opened fire on students demanding more teachers. In September, two individuals in the northern town of Kouroussa were reportedly seriously injured after a prefect’s guards opened fire on a crowd protesting government corruption.
“Lethal use of force against protestors has become a recurring problem in Guinea,” said Takirambudde. “The Guinean government must demonstrate that it is serious about protecting the lives of all Guineans by quickly investigating these abuses.”
Accounts from Conakry and Labé:
“On Monday morning, we went to take our national exams. The principal of our high school came and said that they would happen, but he didn’t know when. We were so angry that we decided to march toward the governor’s office. We were chanting ‘we want change’ and ‘we’re fed up with poor governance.’ There were about 50 soldiers in the courtyard of the governor’s office. They started whipping people with belts to chase us out. We ran out of the courtyard, and started to burn tires up the street. Then we all marched to the prison. There were some soldiers in front of the prison. They were firing their rifles in the air, but they saw that it no longer scared us. One soldier aimed and fired at a student and hit him in the stomach. He was in the same class as me. I, along with six others, picked up the body and took it to the hospital. A doctor confirmed that he was dead.”
- High school student, witness to army killing of demonstrators in Labé on June 12.
“The police were dressed in full riot gear with shields and helmets. When they arrived, they leapt out of their cars and immediately started beating anyone they could catch with their clubs. The students stated fleeing. It was total panic. Then some students came back and started throwing rocks. The police responded by firing their rifles straight into the crowd. I don’t know if it was just one policeman firing, or several. The students fled again, and the police chased after clubbing those they could, and kicking those who fell to the ground. I saw four dead.”
- Taxi driver in Conakry, witness to police killings and brutality in Conakry on June 12.
“I was preparing lunch for the family when a large group of police officers came into our courtyard. We thought that because we were staying home, we wouldn’t have any problems. I saw them hitting some of my brothers, and I ran into my house. One of the policemen came in to my room. Like the others, he was dressed in black and wearing a bullet-proof vest. He pushed my up against the armoire. With his hand, he ripped my shirt in front. Then he raped me. His gun was pressing on my shoulder. Later, he came back and pressed a knife to my head. I thought he was going to kill me.”
- 19-year-old junior high school student, raped by a policeman in Conakry on June 13.
“I was sitting next to the mosque for evening prayer. I saw a group of kids running by. Two policemen then passed me, but then they turned back when it looked like the kids were out of reach. One of them started to beat me with a club. A group of neighbors came out to help me. The other policeman fired in the air and some of the neighbors fled. The police took me and put me in their truck. One of them punched me in the eye with his fist. Then my aunt came and gave 200,000 Guinean francs [about US$40] to the police and they let me out of the truck. Otherwise, they take you to the police station.”
- 45-year-old electrician, beaten by police in Conakry on June 16.