(Washington, DC) – The Guinean government should investigate the role of two high-level officials in the apparent illegal detention and intimidation of members of a prominent Guinean human rights group, Human Rights Watch said today. The actions of the Conakry governor, Sékou Resco Camara, and a high-level police colonel, Amadou Camara, amount to both an abuse of authority and a clear attempt to interfere in the independence of the judiciary, Human Rights Watch said.
Five staff members of Les Mêmes Droits Pour Tous (Same Rights For All, or MDT), including its president, Frédéric Foromo Loua, a lawyer, were detained on November 3, 2011, and subjected to hours of interrogation by police, apparently under the orders of the two officials. At one point, witnesses heard the governor order the police to shoot the activists if they moved.
The members of the group were detained as they tried to accompany two released prisoners out of Conakry’s main prison. Both the attorney general in Conakry and the national director of prisons had ordered the men’s release. The police have since returned the two released prisoners to detention, where they remain. One had been held in pretrial detention since 2001 and the other since 2005.
“These unacceptable actions by Conakry’s governor and a high-level police officer are not only a gross abuse of authority, but also a blatant interference with judiciary independence,” said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities need to investigate immediately what happened to these rights advocates and to hold everyone responsible to account.”
The MDT staff members were detained within the headquarters of the Police Special Interventions Unit (Compagnie Spéciale d’Intervention de la Police,CSIP), which is under the command of Colonel Camara. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that Colonel Camara objected to freeing the prisoners “because releasing them would encourage crime.” Shortly thereafter, Governor Camara, who is not related to the colonel, arrived at the headquarters and ordered the arrest of the five MDT staff for “supporting delinquents.” The governor then ordered about 20 policemen, some of whom were armed, to accompany the MDT staff to their offices and to have them produce their work authorization.
A witness told Human Rights Watch that before leaving the CSIP, he heard Governor Camara order the policemen to shoot any MDT staff trying to flee from the office. Camara was also heard to say that, “I’ve heard people talking about this NGO and it’s time that we’re finished with them.”
After the police officers brought the rights advocates back to the police station, they were questioned for two hours. After nearly nine hours in police custody, the staff members were released, but ordered to return the next morning for additional questioning.
When they returned on November 4, the rights advocates were held for five more hours. After the prosecutor general and attorney general met with the regional security director, the MDT staff members were released without charge.
MDT has been working since 2004 to promote and defend the rights of Guineans denied the right to due process, by providing free legal aid to adult and juvenile prisoners, particularly those held illegally or suffering from serious medical conditions. They have provided free legal assistance to over 2,000 prisoners held in illegal pretrial detention.
Facely Fofana, one of the two men returned to prison, had been held since 2005 for his alleged involvement in armed robbery and murder and was released because his file had been lost. Mamadou Bilo Barry, the other man returned to prison, had been charged with armed robbery and held without trial since 2001. Barry, had been ordered released because he is gravely ill.
The police presented no evidence to justify the detention and arrest of the human rights defenders who were merely accompanying Fofanah and Barry after their freedom had been authorized by officials of the Ministry of Justice. Furthermore, the contravention by the governor and police of an order issued by Justice Ministry officials constitutes a failure to respect the rule of law. Lastly, Fofanah and Barry's current detention without an arrest warrant constitutes an unlawful or arbitrary detention.
Guinea has long suffered from a culture of impunity, endemic corruption, and crushing poverty. The 2010 elections, which brought Alpha Condé to power, were envisioned as a turning point for a country that has endured a series of authoritarian and abusive leaders. While President Condé has taken some steps to address the serious governance and human rights problems he inherited, progress toward better respect for the rule of law is undermined by a lack of discipline in the security forces and inadequate support for the chronically neglected judiciary.
Severe shortages of judicial personnel, poor record keeping, insufficient infrastructure and resources, and unprofessional conduct by judiciary and corrections employees have led to widespread detention-related abuses, notably prolonged pretrial detention and poor prison conditions, Human Rights Watch said.
An estimated 80 to 90 percent of prisoners held in Maison Centrale, Guinea’s largest prison, located in Conakry, have not appeared before a judge or been convicted of the offense that led to their detention. Many, like the two prisoners whose orders for release MDT had secured, have been held for more than five years without trial.
Lack of independence from the executive and intimidation of the judiciary by members of the security services has long been a feature of the Guinean judicial system, Human Rights Watch said. The justice minister should ensure that the orders signed by the national director of prisons and the attorney general of the Court of Appeal ordering the release of the two detainees is respected by the authorities of the country.
“The justice minister should intervene and ensure that human rights organizations are able to operate freely, as guaranteed by both Guinean and international law,” Dufka said. “They should not be subjected to threats and arbitrary arrests by local government officials and security forces.”