Soldiers from the Republican Forces patrol Dabou on August 16, 2012, following an attack on an army base, a prison, and a police station the previous night. Progress in security sector reform remains minimal, and many soldiers continue to conduct policing functions.

© 2012 Getty Images

(Paris) – Côte d’Ivoire’s military was responsible for widespread human rights abuses in August and early September 2012, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The abuses includedarbitrary arrests, illegal detentions, extortion, inhuman treatment, and, in some cases, torture.

The 73-page report, “‘A Long Way from Reconciliation’: Abusive Military Crackdown in Response to Security Threats in Côte d’Ivoire,”details the brutal crackdown that followed a series of violent attacks on military installations around the country in August. The attacks were allegedly committed by militants loyal to former President Laurent Gbagbo. The resulting crackdown recalled the grave crimes committed during the 2010-2011 post-election crisis, in some cases under the same commanders previously identified as responsible for brutal abuses, Human Rights Watch found. The government of President Alassane Ouattara needs to ensure the prompt investigation and prosecution of forces who committed serious human rights abuses, including torture and inhuman treatment, in response to these security threats, Human Rights Watch said.

“The security threats to Côte d’Ivoire are real, but widespread abuses by the military will fuel – rather than end – them,” said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government should quickly show the determination to bring to account the soldiers responsible for torture, inhuman treatment, and criminality.”

The report is based on a three-week mission to Abidjan in late August and early September, during the height of the military crackdown. Human Rights Watch interviewed 39 people who had been arrested and detained after the August attacks, as well as another 14 witnesses to mass arrests, beatings, and other abuses. Human Rights Watch also spoke with drivers of commercial and passenger transport vehicles, family members of people still in detention, leaders from Ivorian civil society, government officials, representatives of humanitarian organizations, representatives of the United Nations peacekeeping mission, and diplomats in Abidjan.

The seemingly coordinated and well-organized attacks on the military installations between August and October came on the heels of earlier assaults along the Liberian-Ivorian border. In a particularly high-profile raid on August 6, attackers killed at least six military personnel and stole a substantial cache of weapons from one of the most important military bases in the country. Since April, at least 50 people, including many civilians, have been killed during these attacks, which the Ivorian government has credibly blamed on pro-Gbagbo militants intent on destabilizing the country.

Ivorian authorities have the right and the responsibility to respond to security threats in accordance with Ivorian and international law, including by arresting and prosecuting suspects, Human Rights Watch said. The government has largely given that power to the country’s military, the Republican Forces. Unlike the police and gendarmerie, the military has no legal basis for overseeing arrests, interrogations, and detentions – particularly of civilians.

The authority given to the Republican Forces is of particular concern in light of the atrocities in which certain soldiers and commanders were implicated during the 2010-2011 post-election crisis and the lack of accountability for these crimes in the period since the Ouattara government took power, Human Rights Watch said.

In August, members of the Republican Forces carried out mass arbitrary arrests of perceived Gbagbo supporters almost daily in the Abidjan neighborhood of Yopougon. Without arrest warrants or individualized evidence, soldiers arbitrarily arrested young men in their homes, at neighborhood restaurants, at bars, in taxis and buses, as they walked home from church, and at traditional community celebrations. Soldiers often arrived in neighborhoods in military cargo trucks and forced 20 or more perceived pro-Gbagbo youth to board. Hundreds of young men appear to have been rounded up and detained, largely on the basis of their ethnicity and place of residence.

Those arrested were often brought to military camps, which are not lawful detention sites for civilians under Ivorian law. Human Rights Watch focused on three detention sites controlled by the Republican Forces: the Adjamé military police camp; the BAE (from the French acronym for anti-riot brigade) camp in Yopougon; and the military camp in Dabou, a town 40 kilometers west of Abidjan and the site of an attack on the military on August 15.

Human Rights Watch interviewed five victims of torture who had been detained at the Adjamé camp. They said military personnel subjected them to beatings, flogging, and other extreme forms of physical mistreatment, generally during questioning related to the location of guns or alleged suspects, or to extract a confession. Several had scars allegedly from the physical abuse. They also said that other detainees had come back to their cells with bruised faces, severe swelling, and open wounds. The detention conditions described were grossly inadequate, including severe overcrowding, near complete denial of food and water, and humiliating practices like being placed in a room with excrement all over the floor as punishment.

A former detainee at the military police camp described his mistreatment: “I was there for a week, and they questioned me every day but the last one. Each day they pulled me out and took me to another room for questioning…. ‘Where are the guns?’ ‘I don’t own a gun, I’ve never held a gun.’ Whack! They’d wrap their belt around their hand and hit me in the head, the face, the side. The metal [ring] of the belt was on the end they hit you with, [I think] to inflict the most pain…. I had a lot of wounds, from when they’d strike you just right with the metal ring.”

Although it did not reach the level of torture, Human Rights Watch likewise documented cruel and inhuman treatment at the BAE and Dabou military camps, including frequent beatings. According to victims and witnesses, soldiers from these two camps also turned their security role into a lucrative scheme. During neighborhood sweeps and mass arrests, they stole cash and valuables such as cell phones, computers, and jewelry. Detainees also said the soldiers demanded money – as much as 150,000 CFA (US$300) in some cases – to guarantee their release. Several former detainees told Human Rights Watch that they were not even asked for their names, much less questioned. They were simply held for days in miserable conditions and then forced to pay the soldiers for their freedom.

As Côte d’Ivoire tries to move past a decade of grave crimes, these abuses demonstrate how far the country still has to go, as expressed by a former detainee at the BAE camp interviewed by Human Rights Watch: “How does the government expect reconciliation when the FRCI (Republican Forces) steal from us, treat us all as militiamen, [and] do daily mass arrests?I have nothing left now, all my money was taken or [used to pay for my release]…. When people have been stripped of everything, when all we are left with is hatred … we’re a long way from reconciliation.”

In August and September, the commander in charge of the BAE camp and the Dabou military operations was Ousmane Coulibaly, better known as “Bin Laden.” Former detainees and other people with access to the BAE camp identified Coulibaly at the camp while abuses occurred. In an October 2011 report on the post-election violence, Human Rights Watch named Coulibaly as one of the Republican Forces commanders under whose command soldiers committed acts of torture and dozens of summary executions during the final battle for Abidjan in April and May 2011. Forces under his command have previously been implicated in serious crimes by other international organizations and the US State Department. In late September, Coulibaly was named the prefect, or regional administrator, in charge of the tense area of San Pedro.

“The recurrent crimes committed under certain commanders should serve as a stark reminder of the consequences of impunity,” Dufka said. “Military commanders who oversee abuses should no longer be untouchable, or else Côte d’Ivoire will continue to be plagued by the grave human rights violations that have marked the last decade.”

While in Abidjan, Human Rights Watch briefed the Ivorian government, including the interior and human rights ministers, on its principal findings, and followed up with a letter to the Ivorian presidency detailing the report’s main conclusions and asking for an official response. In its answers, the government stressed the gravity of the security threat and the need for solidarity with the military in the face of the repeated, violent attacks. However, authorities also promised an investigation into the abuses documented by Human Rights Watch, indicating that anyone found responsible for torture or inhuman treatment would be prosecuted.

“The Ivorian government’s promises to ensure credible and impartial investigations into human rights abuses are a positive response, but the reality is that its forces remain largely above the law,” Dufka said. “Meeting its commitment to prosecute those involved in the abusive crackdown is an essential step toward promoting reconciliation and returning to the rule of law.”