Moussa Dadis Camara waves to crowds in the Guinean capital, Conakry, on December 24, 2008.

© 2008 Reuters

(Dakar) – Guinea’s coup government should respect the rights of demonstrators and end intimidation and threats against those who express dissent, Human Rights Watch said today. Opposition politicians and at least one human rights activist who have criticized the presumed candidacy of the coup leader, Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, for the upcoming presidential elections have been threatened in recent days. The government also imposed a ban on mobile phone text-messaging for several days.

With demonstrations planned for the coming days, Human Rights Watch urged the coup government to exercise restraint in responding to protesters and to ensure respect for the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Security forces in Guinea have a history of using excessive and often deadly force against demonstrators. In one case in August, the security forces used violence against rioters protesting the economic situation, resulting in one death.

“The coup leaders keep saying they are breaking with the past, but the use of threats and intimidation against opponents looks disturbingly familiar,” said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Captain Camara and his men need to stop these abuses and make sure that there is a level playing field for the presidential election.”

A group of Guinean military officers calling themselves the National Council for Democracy and Development (CNDD) seized power hours after the death in December 2008 of Lansana Conté, Guinea’s president for 24 years. The coup government’s eight months in power have been characterized by arbitrary arrests and detentions, restrictions on peaceful political activity, unpunished criminal acts by the military, and calls for vigilante justice.

Shortly after taking power, Camara pledged to hold elections in 2009 and promised that neither he nor anyone in the CNDD would run for president. After months of delay in organizing elections, and under mounting pressure from key international stakeholders, Camara, on August 17, set January 31, 2010 as the presidential election date. Shortly thereafter, he reversed his pledge not to run for office, saying that any member of the CNDD should be “free to put forward their candidacy for the national election if they so desire.” Though Camara has not formally declared himself a presidential candidate, it is widely believed within Guinean civil society that he and other members of the coup government will run for office.

Stepped-Up Pressure on Opponents

In response to a recent wave of criticism and calls for mass demonstrations against the military, the coup government has stepped up its use of intimidation and threats against those who express opposition:

  • During a news conference on August 19, Camara warned political leaders not to protest publicly, saying, “Any political leader who makes trouble by organizing strikes or protests or any other form of mass mobilization will simply be removed from the list of candidates and will also be prosecuted.”
  • A prominent human rights activist received three death threats on his mobile phone after he denounced the postponement of elections during an interview with the popular Radio France Internationale on August 19. While the callers did not identify themselves, the activist believed that they were supporters of the coup government.
  • After calling on Camara not to run for president during party meetings and in declarations to the national and international press in August, Cellou Dalein Diallo, the presidential candidate for the opposition Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea (UFDG), was on two occasions summoned to the Alpha Yaya Diallo military camp – the ad hoc seat of government – and urged to desist from commenting on the possible candidacy of CNDD head Camara.
  • During an August 17 interview on a local radio station, the president of the New Democratic Forces (NFD) party, Mouctar Diallo (no relation to Cellou Dalein Diallo), criticized the coup leaders, saying that any election in which they participate could not be considered free and fair. On August 24, the day he had planned to leave for France, security forces went to his residence in what he believed was an attempt to arrest him. Diallo had already left Guinea on an earlier flight and was not home when they came.
  • Around August 25, the coup government ordered telephone companies to turn off mobile phone text-messaging service after youth groups vowed to take to the streets in both support of and opposition against the coup government. The ban lasted for several days.
  • On August 27, hundreds of demonstrators, including some from a newly formed group calling itself the Mouvement Dadis Doit Quitter (“Dadis Must Go Movement”), took to the streets of the capital, Conakry, burning tires and throwing stones at the security forces. A local journalist, Diarouga Balde, was detained by the police for several hours, allegedly for taking photos of the scene. Heavy rains in Conakry drove the demonstrators indoors; however, youth groups on both sides have said they would continue their demonstrations in the coming days.

The Guinean security forces’ poor record policing demonstrations raises concerns about possible excessive use of force in the future. Since 2005, there have been numerous incidents in which Guinean security forces have fired on unarmed demonstrators. In January and February 2007, more than 130 demonstrators were killed by security forces during a nationwide strike over deteriorating economic conditions. None of the deaths have been properly investigated, nor has anyone been held accountable.

Human Rights Watch called on the Guinean government to abide by the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials in policing demonstrations. The UN Basic Principles provide that law enforcement officials carry out their duties with nonviolent means to the extent 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.

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, to respect the right to life and freedoms of expression and assembly. Human Rights Watch called on the government to take all necessary measures to ensure respect for these obligations.

“The CNDD has vowed to halt abuses by Guinea’s security forces,” said Dufka. “It is the coup government’s responsibility to ensure that security forces called out to respond to any future street demonstrations strictly respect the rights of demonstrators.”