(New York) – An in-depth investigation into the September 28, 2009 killings and rapes at a peaceful rally in Conakry, Guinea, has uncovered new evidence that the massacre and widespread sexual violence were organized and were committed largely by the elite Presidential Guard, commonly known as the “red berets,” Human Rights Watch said today. Following a 10-day research mission in Guinea, Human Rights Watch also found that the armed forces attempted to hide evidence of the crimes by seizing bodies from the stadium and the city’s morgues and burying them in mass graves.
Human Rights Watch found that members of the Presidential Guard carried out a premeditated massacre of at least 150 people on September 28 and brutally raped dozens of women. Red berets shot at opposition supporters until they ran out of bullets, then continued to kill with bayonets and knives.
“There is no way the government can continue to imply the deaths were somehow accidental,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “This was clearly a premeditated attempt to silence opposition voices.”
“Security forces surrounded and blockaded the stadium, then stormed in and fired at protesters in cold blood until they ran out of bullets,” added Gagnon. “They carried out grisly gang rapes and murders of women in full sight of the commanders. That’s no accident.”
A group of Guinean military officers calling themselves the National Council for Democracy and Development (Conseil national pour la démocratie et le développement, CNDD) seized power hours after the death on December 22, 2008, of Lansana Conté, Guinea’s president for 24 years. The CNDD is headed by a self-proclaimed president, Captain Moussa Dadis Camara.
Human Rights Watch reiterated its call for full support for, and speedy implementation of, the international commission of inquiry into the violence as proposed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), to be led by the United Nations and with involvement from the African Union. Criminal investigation leading to fair and effective prosecutions of the crimes – through domestic efforts, but failing that, international efforts – is essential, Human Rights Watch said.
A four-member team of Human Rights Watch investigators interviewed more than 150 victims and witnesses in Guinea from October 12 to 22. Among those interviewed were victims wounded during the attack, witnesses present in the stadium, relatives of missing people, military officers who participated in the crackdown and the cover-up, medical staff, humanitarian officials, diplomats, and opposition leaders.
Killings at the Stadium on September 28
According to the accounts of numerous witnesses, a combined force of a few hundred Presidential Guard troops known as “red berets,” gendarmes working with the Anti-Drug and Anti-Organized Crime unit, some members of the Anti-Riot Police, and dozens of civilian-clothed irregular militias entered the stadium around 11:30 a.m. on September 28, sealing off most exits, following the firing of tear gas into the stadium by Anti-Riot Police. The stadium was packed with tens of thousands of peaceful pro-democracy supporters protesting the military regime and Camara’s presumed candidacy in the upcoming presidential elections.
There had been limited violence between opposition supporters and security forces during the course of the morning. In several deadly incidents, security forces fired at opposition members in an attempt to stop them from reaching the stadium. In response to one such lethal shooting, enraged opposition supporters set fire to the Bellevue police station.
However, witness accounts and video evidence obtained by Human Rights Watch showing the stadium crowd just before the shooting shows a peaceful and celebratory atmosphere with opposition supporters singing, dancing, marching around the stadium with posters and the Guinean flag, and even praying. Human Rights Watch has not seen any evidence that any opposition supporters were armed, and no security officials were wounded by opposition supporters at the stadium, suggesting that there was no legitimate threat posed by the opposition supporters that required the violence that followed.
Witnesses said that as soon as the Presidential Guard entered the stadium, its members began firing point-blank directly into the massive crowd of protesters, killing dozens and sowing panic. The attackers, particularly members of the Presidential Guard but also gendarmes attached to the Anti-Drug and Anti-Organized Crime unit, continued to fire into the crowd until they had emptied the two clips of AK-47 ammunition many of them carried. Since most of the exits had been blocked and the stadium was surrounded by the attackers, escape for the trapped protesters was extremely difficult, and many were crushed to death by the panicked crowd.
One opposition supporter, a 32-year-old man, described to Human Rights Watch how the red berets entered the stadium and began firing directly at the protesters, and how the killings continued as he tried to escape:
“They first began to fire tear gas from outside the stadium – many canisters of tear gas were fired into the stadium. Just then, the red berets entered from the big gate to the stadium. As soon as they entered, they began to fire directly at the crowd. I heard a soldier yell, ‘We’ve come to clean!’ I decided to run to the gate at the far end. As I looked back, I could see many bodies on the grass. I decided to try and run out of the stadium. At the far gate, one of the doors was open but there were so many people trying to flee, I decided to climb over the closed door…
“I ran toward the perimeter wall. Near the basketball court, a group of red berets and gendarmes from Tiégboro [Captain Moussa Tiégboro Camara, secretary of state in charge of the fight against drug trafficking and serious crime – no relation to the CNDD president, Dadis Camara] were chasing us. They fired on a group of eight of us, and only three of us were able to get away alive. Five of us were killed, shot down near the wall facing the [Gamal Abdel Nasser] University.
“We couldn’t get out there, so we ran back to the broken wall near Donka road. A group of red berets was there waiting for us, two trucks of them. They were armed with bayonets. I saw one red beret kill three people right in front of us [with a bayonet], so I wanted to run back. But my friend said, ‘There are lots of us, let’s try and push through,’ and that is how we escaped.”
One of the opposition leaders described to Human Rights Watch how he watched in disbelief from the podium as the killing unfolded below them:
“We went up to the podium and when the people knew the leaders had arrived, many more people came into the stadium, filling it up. We were just preparing to leave the stadium and tell people to go home when we heard gunshots outside, and then tear gas was fired. The soldiers put electric current on the metal doors by cutting down the electric wires overhead and encircled the stadium.
“Then they entered the stadium firing. They began firing from the big entry gate to the stadium. We were up on the podium and could see people falling down; it was just unbelievable. When everyone ran away, there were bodies everywhere and we remained on the podium.”
Witnesses also described the killing of many more opposition supporters by the Presidential Guard and other security forces on the grounds surrounding the stadium, which is enclosed by a two-meter-high wall. As protesters tried to scale the walls to escape, many were shot down by the attackers. The opposition supporters said they were also attacked by men in civilian dress and armed with knives, pangas (machetes), and sharpened sticks.
The evidence collected by Human Rights Watch strongly suggests that the massacre and widespread rape (documented below) were organized and premeditated. This conclusion is supported by the evidence, both from witnesses and video, that the security forces began firing immediately at the protesters on entering the stadium, and that the opposition protest was peaceful and did not represent a threat requiring a violent response. The manner in which the massacre appears to have been carried out – the simultaneous arrival of the combined security force, the sealing off of exits and escape routes, and the simultaneous and sustained deadly firing by large numbers of the Presidential Guard – suggests organization, planning, and premeditation.
During interviews, many Guineans expressed shock at the apparent ethnic nature of the violence, which threatens to destabilize the situation in Guinea further. The vast majority of the victims were from the Peuhl ethnic group, which is almost exclusively Muslim, while most of the commanders at the stadium – and indeed key members of the ruling CNDD, including Camara, the coup leader – belong to ethnic groups from the southeastern forest region, which are largely Christian or animist.
Witnesses said that many of the killers and rapists made ethnically biased comments during the attacks, insulting and appearing to target the Peuhl, the majority ethnicity of the opposition supporters, and claiming that the Peuhl wanted to seize power and needed to be “taught a lesson.” Human Rights Watch also spoke with witnesses to the military training of several thousand men from the southeast forest region at a base near the southwestern town of Forécariah, apparently to form a commando unit dominated by people from ethnic groups from the forest region.
Many of the Peuhl victims reported being threatened or abused on account of their ethnicity. For example, one woman who was gang raped by men in uniform wearing red berets described how her attackers referred repeatedly to her ethnicity: “Today, we’re going to teach you a lesson. Yes, we’re tired of your tricks… we’re going to finish all the Peuhl.” A young man detained for several days in the Koundara military camp described how a red beret put a pistol to his head and said, “You say you don’t want us, that you prefer Cellou [the leading Peuhl opposition candidate, Cellou Dalein Diallo]… we’re going to kill all of you. We will stay in power.”
Death Toll and the Government Cover-Up
Human Rights Watch’s research confirms that the death toll of the September 28 massacre was much higher than the government’s official toll of 57 dead, and is more likely to be about 150 to 200 dead. According to hospital records, interviews with witnesses and medical personnel, and the records collected by opposition political parties and local human rights organizations, at least 1,000 people were wounded during the attack on the stadium. Human Rights Watch found strong evidence that the government engaged in a systematic attempt to hide the evidence of the crimes. During the afternoon of September 28, members of the Presidential Guard seized control of the two main morgues in Conakry and prevented families from recovering the bodies of their relatives.
In the hours that followed, witnesses and family members said, soldiers, most wearing red berets, removed bodies from the city morgues and collected bodies from the stadium, then took them to military bases and concealed them. Human Rights Watch investigated more than 50 cases of confirmed deaths from the massacre and found that half of those bodies had been taken away by the military, including at least six that had initially been taken to the main Donka Hospital morgue.
For example, the body of Mamadou “Mama” Bah, a 20-year-old student killed on September 28, was transported to Donka morgue by the local Red Cross. The body disappeared and has not been recovered. Bah’s father described what he experienced to Human Rights Watch:
“The Red Cross took the body to Donka Hospital morgue, and I followed them myself. At the hospital, I spoke to the doctors and they told me I should come back the next day to collect the body. But the next day, the morgue was encircled by red berets who refused anyone access. We tried to negotiate with them, but they refused. On Friday, I went to the Grand Fayçal Mosque when they displayed the bodies from Donka morgue, but his body wasn’t there. It had disappeared.”
Hamidou Diallo, a 26-year-old shoe salesman, was shot in the head and killed at the stadium. A close friend, who was wounded, watched the red berets remove Diallo’s body from the stadium and take it away to an unknown location. Despite an extensive search of the morgue and the military bases, the family was unable to find Diallo’s body.
One witness inside the Almamy Samory Touré military camp described to Human Rights Watch how in the hours after the massacre, the military brought 47 bodies from the stadium to the camp, and then later that evening went to the morgue that he was told was at the Ignace Deen Hospital and collected an additional 18 bodies. The witness further stated that the 65 bodies were taken from the military base in the middle of the night, allegedly to be buried in mass graves.
Widespread Rape and Sexual Violence
The Presidential Guard, and to a lesser extent gendarmes, carried out widespread rape and sexual violence against dozens of girls and women at the stadium, often with such extreme brutality that their victims died from the wounds inflicted.
Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed 27 victims of sexual violence, the majority of whom were raped by more than one person. Witnesses described seeing at least four women murdered by members of the Presidential Guard after being raped, including women who were shot or bayoneted in the vagina. Some victims were penetrated with gun barrels, shoes, and wooden sticks.
Victims and witnesses have described how rapes took place publicly inside the stadium, as well as in several areas around the stadium grounds, including the nearby bathroom area, the basketball courts, and the annex stadium. In addition to the rapes committed at the stadium, many women described how they were taken by the Presidential Guard from the stadium and from a medical clinic where they had sought treatment to private residences, where they endured days and nights of brutal gang rape. The level, frequency, and brutality of sexual violence that took place at and after the protests strongly suggests that it was part of a systematic attempt to terrorize and humiliate the opposition, not just random acts by rogue soldiers.
A 35-year-old teacher described to Human Rights Watch how she was gang raped at the stadium:
“After the shooting began I tried to run, but the red berets caught me and dragged me to the ground. One of them struck me twice on the head with the butt of his rifle. After I fell down, three set upon me. One whipped out his knife and tore my clothes off, cutting me on the back in the process. I tried to fight but they were too strong. Two held me down while the other raped me. They said they would kill me if I didn’t leave them to do what they wanted. Then the second one raped me, then the third. They beat me all the while, and said again and again they were going to kill all of us. And I believed them – about three meters away another woman was being raped, and after they had finished, one of them took his bayonet and stuck her in her vagina, and then licked the blood from his knife. I saw this, just next to me… I was so terrified they would also do this to me.”
A 42-year-old professional woman who was held in a house and gang raped for three days described her ordeal to Human Rights Watch:
“As I tried to run from the firing, I saw a few red berets raping a young woman. One of them put his gun in her sex and fired – she didn’t move again. Oh God, every time I think of that girl dying in that way… I can’t bear it. As this happened, another red beret grabbed me hard from behind and said, ‘Come with me, or I will do the same thing to you.’ He led me to a military truck with no windows. In it were about 25 young men and about six women, including me. After some distance they stopped and the soldiers told three or four women to get out. Later they stopped at a second house where they told the women who remained to get out. I was immediately led into a room and the door was locked behind me.
“Some hours later three of them came into the room – all dressed in military and with red berets. One of them had a little container of white powder. He dipped his finger in it and forced it into my nose. Then all three of them used me. They used me again the next day, but after a while others came in, two by two. I didn’t know how many or who. I felt my vagina was burning and bruised. I was so tired and out of my head. The first three of them were watching each other as they raped me.
“I was there for three days. They said, ‘You don’t really think you’ll leave here alive, do you?’ and at times argued among themselves, ‘Should we kill her now?’ ‘No… let’s get what we need and then kill her.’ At times I heard another woman crying out from a nearby room, ‘Please, please… oh my God, this is the end of my life.’ On the last day at 6 a.m., the soldiers put a cover over my head, drove for some time, and then let me go on a street corner, completely naked.”
Commanders at the scene clearly were aware of the widespread rapes, but there is no evidence that they made any attempt to stop them. One opposition leader told Human Rights Watch how he was led out of the stadium by Lieutenant Abubakar “Toumba” Diakité, the commander of the Presidential Guard, past at least a dozen women as they were being sexually assaulted by red berets. He noted how Toumba did nothing to stop the rapes:
“I saw lots of cases of rape. The opposition leaders were taken slowly out of the stadium, so we saw a lot. As we came down from the podium, I saw a woman naked on the ground surrounded by five red berets who were raping her on the grass. I saw other naked women there being taken away by the red berets [to be raped]. There were even more rapes outside the stadium. Just outside the stadium, where the showers are, there was a woman naked on the ground. There were three or four red berets on top of her, and one had pushed his rifle into her [vagina]. She was screaming so loudly in pain that we had to look and see it. All along that passage, there were about a dozen women being raped. Lieutenant Toumba was right next to us and saw it all, but he didn’t do anything to stop the rapes.”
Responsibility for the Massacre, Sexual Violence, and Other Abuses
Based on the evidence gathered, Human Rights Watch found that the massacre and sexual violence committed on September 28 at the stadium appeared to be both organized and pre-planned. All those responsible, including those who gave the orders, should be held criminally accountable for their actions, as should anyone who tried to cover up the crimes and dispose of any evidence. That the killings, sexual violence, and persecution on the grounds of ethnicity appear to have been systematic suggests that this may have been a crime against humanity. As such, the principle of “command responsibility” applies. Those in positions of responsibility, who should have known about the crime (or its planning) and who failed to prevent it or prosecute those responsible, should be held criminally responsible.
Human Rights Watch believes that independent criminal investigations leading to the identification and prosecution of those responsible, including those liable under command responsibility, are urgently needed. Among those whose possible criminal responsibility for the massacre and sexual violence should be investigated are:
- Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, president of the CNDD: While Camara was not believed to have been present at the stadium on September 28, he was involved in trying to prevent the protest. All witness accounts said killings were carried out by members of the Presidential Guard, which Camara ultimately commands, and that the person in command of the red berets at the stadium was Camara’s personal aide de camp and head of his personal bodyguard, Lieutenant Abubakar “Toumba” Diakité. Evidence suggests that the Presidential Guard at the stadium came there from the Alpha Yaya Diallo military camp where Camara is based. Further, there is no evidence that Camara has initiated any proceedings to discipline or hold accountable any of his subordinates directly implicated in the massacre and rapes.
- Lieutenant Abubakar “Toumba” Diakité: Many witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch have stated that Toumba was physically present at the stadium and in direct command of the Presidential Guard that carried out the massacre and widespread sexual violence there. There is no evidence that he made any attempt to stop troops from carrying out the killings or the sexual violence.
- Lieutenant Marcel Kuvugi: Kuvugi is a deputy to Diakité and sometimes serves as Camara’s personal driver. Witnesses, including several opposition leaders, have said he violently attacked and repeatedly threatened to kill the political opposition leaders present at the stadium. The political leaders said that when they were taken from the stadium to a clinic for first-aid treatment, Kuvugi threatened to shoot them if they got out of the car and to throw a grenade at them, keeping them from getting medical treatment.
- Captain Claude “Coplan” Pivi, minister for presidential security: There are conflicting reports about whether Pivi was present at the stadium during the massacre. Witnesses have alleged that he participated in attacks on the homes of opposition leaders on the evening of September 28 and in the violent attacks on opposition-dominated neighborhoods in the following days.
- Captain Moussa Tiégboro Camara: As secretary of state in charge of the fight against drug trafficking and serious crime, Tiégboro commands the elite gendarme unit that took part in the massacre at the stadium. Witnesses have stated that Tiégboro was present. Witnesses have also said the gendarmes made several attempts to stop the protesters before they reached the stadium, in a few instances firing into the crowds and killing at least three protesters. Witnesses have stated that the gendarme unit then participated in the massacre at the stadium, though its members were less frequently implicated in murder and rape than were the Presidential Guard. At least 72 protesters were detained in the custody of the gendarme unit following the massacre, and those held by the unit said they were severely mistreated.
Need for an International Commission of Inquiry and Criminal Accountability
Due to the serious nature of the crimes committed by Guinea’s security forces, particularly the Presidential Guard, on September 28 and on the days that followed, there should be a strong response from the international community. Human Rights Watch therefore calls upon the African Union, ECOWAS, the European Union, and the United Nations to:
- Support fully the international commission of inquiry into the events of September 28 proposed by ECOWAS and already established by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, to ensure that it immediately has the resources to carry out its investigation and promptly publish its results, and urge Guinea’s authorities to cooperate fully with this inquiry.
- Strongly urge Guinean authorities to ensure that prompt, independent, fair, and open criminal investigations take place into the crimes and their cover-up, leading to the fair and effective prosecution of those allegedly responsible in accordance with international standards, including those who gave orders or who are liable under command responsibility. Should the Guinean authorities fail to ensure such investigations and prosecutions, the Guinean government, the AU, ECOWAS, EU, and UN should fully support international investigations and prosecutions, including by the International Criminal Court (ICC) if the requirements of its statute are met. Guinea is a state party to the ICC, which gives the court jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes committed on its territory. Following the violence on September 28, the ICC prosecutor indicated that Guinea is under preliminary examination by his office. Preliminary examination is a phase that may precede the opening of an investigation.
Human Rights Watch plans to release a full-length report on its findings. Human Rights Watch is now releasing a summary of its core findings because of the gravity of the abuses committed and the need for immediate international action to bring the perpetrators of the abuses to justice.