(Dakar, April 24, 2007) — In responding to nationwide demonstrations, Guinean security forces murdered, assaulted, and robbed the citizens they are entrusted to protect, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The new government must take concrete measures to hold those responsible to account.
Security forces’ crackdown on protests in January and February resulted in at least 129 deaths and more than 1,700 wounded, hundreds of them by gunshot. In mid-January, Guinean trade unions called the strike to protest against corruption, bad governance, and deteriorating economic conditions. The strike paralyzed all major economic sectors, including the mining operations that provide a large portion of state revenue. It was the third such nationwide strike in less than a year.
The 64-page report, “Dying for Change: Brutality and Repression by Guinean Security Forces in Response to a Nationwide Strike,” documents how Guinean security forces brutally repressed demonstrations across the country. It details how security forces abused, intimidated and arbitrarily arrested journalists and members of civil society. The report also shows how security forces were responsible for excessive use of force, as well as reckless and undisciplined fire.
“Guinean security forces responded to the nationwide strike by attacking citizens rather than protecting them,” said Peter Takirambudde, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Holding accountable those responsible for these very serious abuses will be a key test for the new government.”
Human Rights Watch called on the Guinean government to immediately create an independent body with full authority to investigate, indict, prosecute and punish abuses that have occurred. This body should draw upon the expertise of the international community through the involvement of members of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Guinea’s new government, under Prime Minister Lansana Kouyaté, took office in late March under a deal to end the national strike.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 115 victims of and witnesses to the violence that took place during the nationwide protests in January and February, and collected detailed accounts of abuses perpetrated by security forces. Eyewitnesses to dozens of killings told Human Rights Watch that security forces fired directly into crowds of unarmed demonstrators, frequently before having exhausted non-lethal means of crowd control, and also gunned down demonstrators trying to flee to safety.
“I saw the [soldiers] firing straight into the crowd and several people fell on the ground,” said one protestor who witnessed several deaths during a peaceful march in the capital Conakry on January 22. “We panicked and tried to flee. As my friend was trying to climb a wall into a nearby cemetery to get away, someone fired and hit him in the shoulder. He fell down and tried to climb again, and they shot him again in the lower backside.”
In what appeared to be well-organized operations, Guinean security forces beat, robbed, threatened and arbitrarily arrested trade union and other civil society leaders, as well as journalists. Security forces ransacked the workplaces of one of the trade unions organizing the strike, along with one of Guinea’s private radio stations.
During the six-week crisis, scores of Guineans, many of them mere bystanders to the demonstrations, were severely beaten and robbed at gunpoint by security forces, often in their own homes. Scores of other Guineans, including children, were killed or wounded by undisciplined and reckless fire. This occurred when security forces sprayed bullets into the air and even directly into communities in an apparent attempt to frighten demonstrators to return to or to remain in their homes.
Protests during the first days of the strike were largely peaceful, if at times unruly. However, as the strike continued the intensity of confrontations between protestors and security forces increased and the death toll rose dramatically. On January 22, during a demonstration in which tens of thousands of Guineans attempted to march to the national assembly building in Conakry, security forces gunned down scores of unarmed demonstrators in their attempts to disperse the crowds.
In early February, popular anger at the president’s nomination of a member of his inner circle, Eugène Camara, to the post of prime minister led to widespread violent rioting, and the subsequent declaration of martial law. Under martial law, the military committed numerous abuses— including murder, rape, and robbery—during house-to-house searches for weapons earlier seized by a small group of violent protesters. The six-week crisis finally ended in late February when President Conté replaced Camara with Kouyaté, a consensus prime minister.
The Guinean government has legal obligations under international and regional human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. These treaties require the government to respect the right to life, right to bodily integrity, right to liberty and security of the person, as well as freedom of expression, association, and assembly. But these obligations were widely violated by Guinean security forces in responding to the strike in January and February.
“Lethal and excessive use of force against protestors is a recurring problem in Guinea,” said Takirambudde. “These abuses continue for the simple reason that the government almost never investigates and punishes those responsible.”
Human Rights Watch urged international donors such as the European Union and the United States, as well as international bodies such as the African Union and the United Nations, to vigorously press the Guinean government for a prompt investigation by an independent body.