(Dakar, January 17, 2007) — As a tense and at times violent nationwide strike continued in Guinea this week, Human Rights Watch called on Guinean security forces to exercise restraint in responding to demonstrators and to ensure that their fundamental right to life, and freedoms of expression and assembly are respected. In the past, Guinean security forces have responded to protests by killing unarmed protesters and attacking bystanders.

During violent clashes between demonstrators and police and gendarmes on January 15, some demonstrators burned tires, threw stones, broke car windows, and, according to police sources, tried to break into a police station. For their part, security forces fired into the air, used tear-gas, detained and beat numerous protesters. According to sources interviewed by Human Rights Watch, security forces also robbed demonstrators and local residents. Over the weekend, the government banned all demonstrations, marches and assemblies in the capital, Conakry, and police briefly detained 12 members of a civil society organization helping to organize the strike.

“Guinea’s security forces have a poor record of dealing with demonstrators,” said Peter Takirambudde, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s up to the government to make sure that Guinean security forces don’t abuse the protesters.”

The strike, the third nationwide protest in a year, got under way on January 10 and resulted in the shutting down of schools, shops and markets across the country. The strike was called by Guinea's two most powerful unions to protest against deteriorating economic conditions, including rampant inflation, and corruption. In a meeting with ailing President Lansana Conte on January 15, union leaders presented Conte with an ultimatum to either appoint a new prime minister and hand over power, or face mass nationwide demonstrations.

Since 2005 there have been several incidents in which Guinean security forces have fired on unarmed demonstrators. Most recently — in June 2006 — the government responded to demonstrations against rising prices of basic commodities with a brutal crackdown, during which the police and soldiers gunned down at least 13 unarmed demonstrators. Scores of Guineans, many of them mere bystanders to the demonstrations, were severely beaten, robbed and, in a few cases, raped by security forces.

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. Human Rights Watch called on the government to remain vigilant and exercise restraint in order to ensure respect for these obligations.

Human Rights Watch also called on the Guinean security forces to abide by the UN 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, apply nonviolent means as far as possible 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.