(Dakar) - The new rulers of Guinea who came to power following last month's coup should take concrete steps to address Guinea's dismal human rights record, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the coup leader, Captain Moussa Dadis Camara. These steps should include holding senior members of the security forces accountable for past abuses and holding parliamentary and presidential elections without delay, the letter said.

Captain Camara came to power as the leader of a group of military officers calling themselves the National Council for Democracy and Development (CNDD), only hours after the death on December 22, 2008, of Lansana Conté, Guinea's president for 24 years. The coup leaders quickly suspended the country's constitution and declared a ban on political and union activity. Camara has pledged to hold elections in 2009 and relinquish control to a civilian-led government. On January 14, he announced a cabinet made up of military officers and civilians.

"Guinea stands at an historic crossroads," said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Improving the chronic human rights problems that have undermined the civil, political, social, and economic rights of the Guinean population for decades must be a top priority of the current government."

Since 2006, Human Rights Watch has done extensive research into patterns of human rights abuses against ordinary Guineans, including torture, extrajudicial executions, widespread extortion, and the brutal repression of street protests. The evidence in the vast majority of these cases shows that the abuses have been committed by members of the security forces, but the government has rarely investigated these cases, much less brought those responsible to justice. This failure to act, coupled with a weak judiciary, characterized by a lack of independence from the executive branch, inadequate resources, and corruption, has left ordinary Guineans with scant hope for redress.

The letter includes recommendations to provide funds and support so that two existing institutions aimed at investigating past and ongoing human rights abuses can operate. One of these is the Commission of Inquiry into the killing of at least 137 unarmed protesters by security forces during a 2007 nationwide strike against deteriorating economic conditions and bad governance. The other is the National Observatory for Democracy and Human Rights, whose mission is to investigate ongoing human rights abuses and conduct human rights education. Both were created under Conté's rule, but were unable to operate because of a lack of funding, logistical support, and political will.

In the letter, Human Rights Watch also expressed concern about the presence within the CNDD of a few military officers who have been linked to serious past abuses and crimes, including torture. Human Rights Watch urged Captain Camara to rigorously scrutinize the record of those who currently hold positions within the group and the newly appointed government. The new government should hold accountable, in accordance with international fair trial standards, any individuals against whom there is evidence of involvement in past abuses or criminal activity, the letter said.

"For too long ordinary Guineans have suffered abuses at the hands of the government, and have been denied the fundamental right to elect their representatives freely and fairly," said Dufka. "Guinea's new leaders have much to do to rectify this worrying state of affairs, including lifting the ban on political and union activity, organizing elections, and taking concrete steps to address the root causes of Guinea's chronic human rights problems."