(Dakar) - Guinean soldiers have been implicated in regular acts of theft and violence against businesspeople and ordinary citizens since a new government took power in a military coup in December 2008, Human Rights Watch said today. The new government should put a stop to these attacks and make certain that the police, gendarmerie, and judiciary carry out independent investigations and prosecute implicated soldiers.
Human Rights Watch collected accounts from victims and witnesses to 19 such incidents, nearly all committed by heavily armed soldiers wearing red berets and traveling in both civilian and official military vehicles without license plates. Soldiers in groups numbering up to 20 have raided offices, shops, warehouses, medical clinics, and homes in broad daylight as well as at night. Soldiers have stolen cars, computers, generators, medicines, jewelry, cash, mobile phones, and large quantities of wholesale and retail merchandise, among other items. Victims include Guineans and foreigners. Many witnesses to these incidents reported that the soldiers appeared to be intoxicated. Many of the victims were also threatened or physically assaulted.
"The coup seems to have opened up a rash of abuses by the military; the impunity enjoyed by these soldiers must come to an end," said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The coup leaders need to bring the rank and file under control, and ensure those responsible for these abuses are promptly investigated and prosecuted."
Human Rights Watch also documented numerous cases of extortion by soldiers during routine identification checks; the March 31 rape by a soldier of a 15-year-old girl; and several incidents of intimidation of the judiciary, during which small groups of soldiers interrupted judicial proceedings or threatened lawyers in an apparent attempt to influence the outcome of the proceedings.
A group of Guinean military officers calling themselves the National Council for Democracy and Development (CNDD) seized power hours after the death on December 22, 2008, of Lansana Conté, Guinea's president for 24 years. The coup leaders, led by a self-proclaimed president, Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, quickly suspended the country's constitution, and pledged to hold elections in 2009 and relinquish control to a civilian-led government.
It is unclear at what level the acts documented by Human Rights Watch were either ordered or sanctioned by senior members of the military. In some cases of theft, the attackers announced that they were on an official mission for the CNDD. However, none of the victims was shown any official documentation justifying the actions, such as a search or arrest warrant.
Most of the criminal acts and intimidation of the judiciary documented by Human Rights Watch involved soldiers wearing red berets. Prior to the coup, two divisions within the Guinean security services were routinely issued with red berets: the Autonomous Presidential Security Battalion, or presidential guard (BASP); and the Autonomous Battalion of Airborne Troops (BATA), an elite group of commandos. Since the coup, however, both units and a few other elite battalions have been folded into one unit based in the CNDD's headquarters at the Alpha Yaya Diallo military camp. Human Rights Watch was also told that soldiers of other divisions have been seen wearing red berets.
Since coming to power, the CNDD has led an official crackdown against drug traffickers, criminals involved in the production and sale of counterfeit medicines, and former government officials accused of corrupt practices. Ironically, many of the human rights abuses documented by Human Rights Watch appeared to have been committed within the context of this crackdown.
For example, following the January 2009 detention of several Chinese citizens suspected of making and selling fake antibiotics, several Chinese-owned businesses, including medical clinics and restaurants, and at least one Guinean-run pharmacy were robbed by soldiers who claimed they were looking for counterfeit medicines. None of the military involved in these operations produced a search warrant, nor officially seized suspected counterfeit medicines. In three cases documented by Human Rights Watch, the business owners were arbitrarily detained and whisked away in a military vehicle. They were robbed of their money, mobile phones, and other valuables by the soldiers and then ordered out of the vehicles some kilometers away.
Human Rights Watch documented numerous cases in which soldiers had robbed Guinean citizens living near the homes or businesses of individuals suspected of involvement in drug trafficking. Victims described how they were robbed by soldiers searching their homes or businesses for contraband the military alleged was there. A Guinean lawyer representing six clients seeking damages for forced entry and armed robbery said the soldiers had broken down doors, destroyed furniture, and stolen a generator, seven cars, computers, clothing, and money. The lawyer told Human Rights Watch:
"The fight against drug trafficking is noble, but they're using it as an excuse to act as common criminals - taking vehicles, money, jewelry - what does all this have to do with drugs? They didn't find any of my clients with drugs. In none of these cases is there a legitimate complaint, or at least not one that has been substantiated."
Numerous other cases of breaking and entering were seemingly unrelated to the crackdown. These included attacks against small family-run kiosks during which the contents were emptied into vehicles driven by the military, roadside stores selling construction materials, private homes, primarily of wealthy Guineans, and warehouses holding imported items.
Military personnel interviewed by Human Rights Watch suggested that individuals posing as soldiers were responsible for the criminal acts. However, several factors cast doubt on this claim. First, many witnesses told Human Rights Watch of soldiers committing abuses in broad daylight in public places and dressed in full military uniform, some with bars indicating rank up to the level of sergeant. Second, in two cases, businessmen whose cars were stolen at gunpoint by soldiers later saw their cars being driven by men in military uniform; in one case, the car was seen driven in and out of a military camp in Conakry. Third, several victims told Human Rights Watch that they recognized individual soldiers whom they knew to be members of the military. Fourth, the soldiers committing many crimes operated in groups of 10 or more, and circulated in small convoys of two or more vehicles.
Under Guinean law, it is the gendarmerie and police who are mandated to investigate crimes, whether the alleged perpetrators are civilians or members of the military. However, victims consistently told Human Rights Watch that since the coup, the military has increasingly taken over some police tasks, including criminal investigation. The owners of five businesses robbed at around the same time on February 16 filed a police report, but were told by the police that since the coup, they were no longer "authorized by the military to conduct investigations." The business owners were told to file a complaint directly with the military.
When Human Rights Watch asked police officers how they were responding to a wave of crimes apparently perpetrated by soldiers in one Conakry suburb, the officers said that the military had "forbidden" them to conduct patrols and investigations; one police officer described how a civilian suspect he had detained for questioning in connection with a burglary at the station was removed from police custody and put into a military vehicle for questioning at a military camp. Another victim told Human Rights Watch that after he complained to the police, they told him that if he wanted action he would need to either file a complaint with the military or denounce it on the radio. Yet another victim filed a complaint at the local police station and later at the head office of the judicial police in charge of investigating crimes, which is under the authority of the prosecutor. Both referred her to the military.
Five victims interviewed by Human Rights Watch had lodged complaints with military authorities in which they had asked for an official investigation into what they claimed were criminal acts by soldiers. No follow-up investigation has been conducted in any of these cases. One victim visited the military camp five times asking for an investigation, and lamented, "I've been to the [military] camp and made many follow-up calls, but not once heard back. The case is going nowhere."
The only case documented by Human Rights Watch where there had been a response by the military involved the rape of the 15-year-old girl. According to family members and community leaders, the accused soldier's superior visited the family and arranged to settle the case outside of court. The soldier was detained for several days in the military camp. The family decided not to file a police report after the military agreed to pay the girl's medical costs.
Under article 14 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, the government of Guinea is under the obligation to protect the right to property, which includes ensuring that state officials (including the military) do not seize property arbitrarily and without compensation.
"The military's duty is to protect and safeguard the Guinean people, not take advantage of them. The lawlessness seen in these abuses is without excuse," said Dufka. "The military should end the abuses and allow the police, gendarmerie, and judiciary to uphold the rule of law."
Abuses committed under the pretext of the crackdown on drug trafficking, counterfeit medicines, and corruption
The Guinean owner and manager of a transport company described the theft of his car and other items on February 15 by a dozen uniformed soldiers ostensibly searching for drugs. He said the soldiers, who smelled of alcohol, were heavily armed, and several were draped with bandoliers:
"They arrived in a Nissan pickup truck without license plates. They told me they were there on a mission ordered by the CNDD to recover 4x4 trucks that I was hiding for the leader of a Guinean opposition party. Some of the Red Berets accused me of hiding drugs and weapons. I told them I am not a military, so I don't have weapons, but they searched the warehouse and ransacked my secretary's office and mine. I am not hiding anything. They did not tell me their names, but I noticed that they all addressed one of them with ‘Excellence.' I asked for a mission order, but they said that they didn't have one, that mission orders are nonsense. They said, ‘Did you not see what kind of vehicle we came in?' The military threatened my employees and told them to lie down on the floor, face down. They were told, ‘You will not get out of here alive' and ‘Nothing will leave this place.' They did not find any drugs or weapons, but they took two computers, my own car, and a large amount of cash. Several people have told me they've seen my car being driven around town by an army man."
A Guinean woman who resides next door to a group of Nigerians allegedly suspected of involvement in drug trafficking was robbed twice by soldiers. The first time they came, they claimed to be looking for Nigerians. She described the incidents that took place on February 25 and March 13:
"The first night, they woke me up when they climbed the walls of my compound. They asked me if there were any Nigerians hidden and searched my house. They did not have a search warrant. They apologized and left. I later noticed my mobile phone was missing. Then on March 13, eight heavily armed Red Berets returned to the residence at 10 p.m. I wasn't there, but my aunt told me what happened. The military threatened to shoot if my aunt did not open the door, so she let them in. When my aunt asked why they were there after not finding anything the first time, they yelled at her to shut up. They took a black backpack with a laptop, 3 million Guinean francs [about US$600], and jewelry. This time, it was clearly not a mistake like the first time they came. Because of these visits, I decided to move out of my house."
The owner of a medical clinic raided by soldiers at 1 p.m. on January 26 described what happened during an attack on his clinic:
"My brother and I are Chinese medical doctors and run a clinic in Conakry. The military came in a gray truck and three motorcycles. There were eight of them and they all wore red berets. Three had rifles and all were in camouflage uniform. They came in saying they were looking for fake medicine, but they went through the house and stole many things, including two diagnostic machines, two mobile phones, 3 million FG [Guinean francs, about US$600], US$3,000, a TV and DVD [player], and bags full of all our clothing. They even went into the freezer and stole the meat we had there! They also stole [my brother's] car - we have yet to see it. They didn't take any medicines; they came to steal. [My brother] was taken in the car by the military, like they were going to arrest him, but they then let him go - stopped the car and told him to get out. Many people from the neighborhood used to come into the clinic, but for the moment we've closed."
A restaurant owner who was robbed in the middle of the day in late January described what happened:
"At about 3 p.m., 10 soldiers came to the restaurant; they were dressed in soldier uniforms and several had guns. As they entered, they kicked at our door, pointed their guns at me and hit me in the stomach. They said they were looking for fake medicines - that it was us the Chinese selling them. I told them this was a Chinese restaurant! What do we have to do with medicines? I even told them it's OK to check, knowing they wouldn't find any of it here. They stole several phones, took two cartons of beer and our personal things, including our clothes. They were very aggressive."
A Guinean businessman whose pharmacy was robbed by 10 soldiers on January 28 described the events to Human Rights Watch:
"At 2 p.m., I was in my pharmacy when 10 Red Berets burst into the place saying they wanted to check if the medicines in my pharmacy were fake. They pretended to look at the medicines, but then went straight for the small safe I have in the corner. They broke it open and stole the 50 million FG [about US$10,000] we had there. They came in a green military pickup without license plates. After stealing the money, they took me along with them, as if to make it look like it was me who'd done something wrong. They stuffed me in the car, but let me go a few kilometers down the road. They wanted to make it look like a proper operation but they just wanted to steal the money - they didn't even take any medicine with them!"
Abuses against judges and lawyers
Human Rights Watch spoke with a judge in Conakry who described an attempt by six soldiers to intimidate him into changing a judicial decision he had made in a civil dispute involving two businesswomen, one of whom had a family member in the military. The incident took place on February 17:
"On the day in question, I was to hand over the official decision in a civil case involving two businesswomen. Suddenly, six soldiers entered my courtroom. To me, it seemed like the woman whose relative was a soldier had organized the red berets to intervene on her behalf. They were armed, uniformed, and wore red berets. I said, ‘You have nothing to do with this process - I have rendered a judicial decision which is entirely independent of the military!' They got very angry and one of them responded, ‘Things have changed; you must change this decision.' They threatened to see that I was removed from power - they said they are the ones in power now. I stood my ground and they eventually left."
A lawyer described how on February 23, two armed soldiers apparently acting on behalf of a plaintiff - a retired general - attempted to intimidate the judge presiding over the case:
"That day I was in court on behalf of an indigent client. Being heard at the same time was a civil case - a dispute over money - between a retired general and another man. The general's lawyer was pushing for the case to be decided that day, but the other man's lawyer was pushing for a postponement on account of a technicality - that the second man had not been formally summoned to appear. Shortly thereafter, two armed soldiers came into the courtroom. They paraded with their long guns up and down the courtroom for 10-15 minutes. When the man's lawyer saw this, he abandoned the courtroom and I took over. The soldiers didn't point their gun directly at the judge, but their presence was really frightening for everyone. It was obvious the judge was afraid, but in the end, the judge held his ground and postponed the case. When the general heard this, he started insulting and yelling at the judge and me! He said, ‘If you do this, you will see what we'll do.' I was extremely frightened. When we went outside the court, I saw about five to seven soldiers, all with red berets, inside a vehicle without license plates."
General criminal acts by members of the military
The unarmed security guard for the residence of a wealthy Guinean businessman described a robbery by about 10 soldiers on March 13:
"I was sitting outside with a few friends. It was around 9 p.m. We heard a car pull up, then around 10 of them - all wearing camouflage, red berets, and with long guns - burst through the compound door. They came in a white truck that they parked outside our gate - it did not have number plates. One of them had one bar on his uniform - I believe he is a sergeant; and I recognized another one - I'd seen him around Conakry in uniform. They entered pointing their guns at us; one of them yelled at the owner's wife to give him the keys to their car. She told them her husband wasn't there and that he had the keys to the car. They got angry and went into the house to look for the key. They found her purse, searched through it and eventually found the key. As one of them was getting in the car, the others were looking for things to steal. They stole two computers, three telephones, a 2 KVA generator, jewelry, and money - around 500,000 CFA [US$1000]. They were drinking - I could smell alcohol on their breath."
A Guinean businessman described the theft by a group of soldiers of 50 cartons of red wine he had recently imported from Europe. He explained how a few days after the theft, he saw and photographed the stolen goods being sold in a shop just outside the Alpha Yaya Diallo military camp:
"On January 8 at around 6 p.m., 10 Red Berets - all uniformed and with arms - arrived at my house in a pickup truck. They entered my house and asked my brother for the key to the container. He didn't want to give it to them, but they beat him up and eventually he gave them the key. They then stole all 50 cartons of the wine. Earlier, I'd approached a store just outside Alpha Yaya camp and asked them if they'd like to sell my wine; it [the store] is owned by a gendarme. I left a sample bottle for them to try. I had a feeling the stolen wine was there and after the robbery, I went there and yes, the wine was in that shop! I took pictures of my wine, which I thought could be used as evidence. I asked the people where they'd gotten the wine and they said the military had come a few days before asking if we wanted to buy the wine. I took the pictures to the police and to a gendarme, who gave me a paper that authorized me to retake possession of the wine, but the second time I went to the shop, the wine was all gone. I've gone to the military several times to sort out this problem, but as of yet have had no luck."
Human Rights Watch urged the government of Guinea to take the following actions:
- Publicly acknowledge and condemn the human rights abuses - including armed robbery, extortion, rape, and other violence - committed since the December 2008 coup by members of the military.
- Issue clear public instructions to all military personnel to desist from committing abuses and to ensure that their actions do not exceed their mandate.
- Call for the investigation by legally relevant authorities of all soldiers alleged to have perpetrated human rights abuses. Call for prosecution of those against whom there is sufficient evidence in accordance with international fair trial standards.
- Encourage the work of institutions legally mandated to conduct criminal investigations and prosecutions - the police, gendarmerie, and judiciary.
- Ensure that victims of armed robbery, extortion, rape, and other abuses by members of the military are adequately and speedily compensated.
To the International Contact Group on Guinea:
- Express its concern about ongoing human rights abuses and the lack of accountability by members of the Guinean security services.
- Urge government leaders to take concrete action to bring to an end abuses by the Guinean military.
- Urge government leaders to hold accountable in accordance with international standards of fair trial soldiers against whom there is sufficient evidence of abuse.
- Encourage the work of rule-of-law institutions - including the police, gendarmerie, and judiciary - and their functioning in accordance with international fair trial standards.