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Guinea: Create Special Unit to Probe Protest Deaths

Impunity for 2018 Violence, Rising Political Tension Raise Concern

Anti-riot police clash with Guinean opposition supporters in Conakry on March 22, 2018.  © 2018 CELLOU BINANI/AFP/Getty Images.

(Nairobi) – The government of Guinea should set up a special task force of judges to investigate the conduct of the security forces and others engaged in unlawful acts during protests. The government’s failure to adequately investigate a dozen alleged killings in 2018 by the security forces and several alleged killings by protesters risks fueling future abuses.

Guinea experienced frequent and violent street protests in 2018, as nongovernmental groups and opposition parties organized demonstrations linked to disputed local elections, a long-running teachers’ strike, and anger at fuel price increases. With tensions mounting over whether President Alpha Condé will seek to amend the constitution and run for a third term in office, further street protests are likely.  

“The failure to adequately investigate alleged misconduct by the security forces and violence by demonstrators risks fueling future cycles of political violence,” said Corinne Dufka, West Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Guinean government should take concrete steps to reverse the longstanding impunity for these kinds of violations. Families and victims deserve nothing less.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 55 people in January and February 2019 about the conduct of the security forces during protests, violence by demonstrators, and the justice system’s response. Interviewees included participants in and witnesses to demonstrations, opposition political activists, law enforcement officials, local nongovernmental groups, doctors, and journalists. Human Rights Watch had conducted previous research on this issue in July 2018.

Witnesses and journalists covering the protests said they were often violent, with large groups of protesters and security forces clashing along main streets of Conakry, the capital. A projectile thrown by a demonstrator killed a gendarme, Mohamed Chérif Soumah, on February 19, 2018. On November 8, protesters in Wanindara fatally stabbed a police officer, Bakary Camara, who had become separated from his unit.

The leadership of Guinea’s police and gendarmerie say that the security forces are only permitted to use non-lethal weapons in responding to protests, such as teargas and water cannons. But witnesses to eight of the dozen fatal shootings during protests in 2018 alleged that members of the security forces fired automatic weapons while trying to disperse demonstrators or while pursuing them through local neighborhoods.

“The gendarmes tried to chase off a crowd of demonstrators, and people started running,” said a witness to the October 30 death of Mamadou Cellou Diallo, a taxi driver killed in the Bambeto neighborhood during an opposition protest. “Mamadou doesn’t know the neighborhood well and didn’t know where to run. He was hit before he could get inside.”

Human Rights Watch also documented in earlier reporting that stray bullets the security forces fired recklessly into the air killed at least one person in 2018 – a young mother of six – and wounded many others.

More than 20 witnesses also said members of the security forces damaged property and stole goods as they pursued protesters. In several cases, family members of people detained during the demonstrations said that police and gendarmes demanded bribes to free their relatives. Groups of protesters also frequently sought to extort money or steal goods from passers-by, according to witnesses.

The authorities’ failure to adequately investigate deaths and other abuses during the 2018 protests reflects a familiar pattern dating back years. The February 4, 2019 conviction of a police captain for the 2016 killing of a demonstrator was the first conviction of a member of the security forces for shooting a protester dead since 2010.

International human rights standards give security forces the right to use proportionate force for legitimate self-defense, as well to arrest protesters engaging in violence. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, however, states that firearms should only be used in strictly limited cases, such as “self-defense or defense of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury,” and “only when less extreme means are insufficient to achieve these objectives.”

Intentional lethal use of firearms is only permissible “when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.” Guinea’s 2015 law on maintaining public order requires security forces to use non-violent means before resorting to force and requires any use of firearms to be necessary and proportionate.

In an April 8 letter to Human Rights Watch, Guinea’s Minister of Defense, Doctor Mohamed Diane, whose ministry oversees the gendarmerie, said that, “contrary to the unfounded allegations [that you] documented, [which are] illustrated by uncorroborated witness testimony,” the Guinean government “has always opted for preventative over repressive measures in public order operations.”

The Ministry of Security and Civilian Protection, which oversees the police, did not respond to a March 25 letter from Human Rights Watch. The leadership of the police and gendarmes have previously said that the security forces are not permitted to carry firearms when responding to protests and blame demonstrators for the deaths, accusing opposition supporters of carrying guns.

Given the security forces’ blanket denial of responsibility for deaths during protests, the creation of a unit of judges focused on protest violence is important to shed light on the circumstances of the deaths of both demonstrators and law enforcement personnel, Human Rights Watch. An effective judicial unit would also need a dedicated a team of police and gendarmes, independent from the usual chain of command.

“Given Guinea’s uncertain political future, it’s highly likely there will be further clashes between the security forces and demonstrators,” said Dufka. “Dedicating a specialized team of judges and investigators to killings during protests would ensure that demonstrators and members of the security forces will be held accountable for their actions.”

History of Election-Related Violence

Guinea has a long history of election-related violence. Scores of people were injured in communal and ethnic violence following the 2010 presidential election. Dozens of demonstrators and two law enforcement officers were killed in 2012-2013 in advance of parliamentary elections. At least 12 people were killed and scores injured prior to and following presidential elections in 2015.

The 2018 local elections are likely to be the first of several fiercely contested polls in the coming years. Guinea’s National Assembly members reached the end of their official term on January 12, although no date has been set for a new election. Condé will reach the end of his second term in 2020, and the 2010 constitution stipulates a two-term limit. Many activists and opposition politicians believe, however, that Condé will try to run for a third term and have expressed concerns about the potential for violence if he does. Condé has yet to make any clear statement on his future.

Since July 2018, Guinean officials have increasingly prohibited public protests, citing security, with opposition parties and independent groups accusing the government of imposing a blanket ban. The government denies there is an outright prohibition.

When opposition political parties or other groups have defied prohibitions on protests, security forces have sought to prevent people from assembling or have broken up protests. Security forces have used teargas, water cannons, batons, and, at times, firearms to disperse protesters, while demonstrators have created improvised checkpoints, burned tires, and used slingshots to throw rocks and other projectiles.

In November, citing deteriorating security, the Guinean government deployed army units to key trouble spots in Conakry. Guinean human rights groups contend that this is a violation of the 2015 law on public security, which limits the army’s role in law enforcement.

Even after November, however, the police and gendarmerie remained the units most frequently deployed to opposition protests. The Mobile Intervention and Security Force (Compagnie mobile d’intervention et de sécurité, CMIS), a rapid-response police unit, and the Anti-Criminality Brigade (Brigade anti-criminalité, BAC), a mixed force of police and gendarmes, were the units most frequently implicated by witnesses in abuses in 2018.

Use of Lethal Force by Police, Gendarmes

Human Rights Watch documented 12 fatal shootings of protesters or bystanders in Conakry in 2018, eight of which witnesses alleged involved members of the security forces firing at protesters. Witnesses said that one other person was killed by a stray bullet. In the three other cases, Human Rights Watch interviewed family members of victims, who alleged killings by members of the security forces, but were not able to interview direct witnesses.

Witnesses said that shootings usually occurred during the chaotic, fast-moving clashes between security forces and protesters, and described security forces shooting at protesters to try to disperse them or while pursuing them through neighborhoods. The chaotic nature of the clashes, as well as the violence used by demonstrators, suggests that some shots the security forces fired may have been motivated by fear. None of the witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, however, said that they saw the victim of the shooting use or threaten violence before the security forces opened fire.

“Ibrahima and I were sitting on the side of the street, when I saw a BAC unit coming toward us,” said a friend of Ibrahima Bah, who was shot dead in the Koloma neighborhood during an October 16 opposition shutdown. “I started running, but Ibrahima had his back to the road so didn’t see them in time. As I was running, I heard shots and later found out Ibrahima was hit.”

In some cases, witnesses alleged that that the security forces targeted a particular person. A witness to the November 7 deaths of Mamadou Bella Baldé and Mamadou Alimou Bah in Wanindara, a suburb of Conakry, told Human Rights Watch that two armed men wearing “military uniforms” shot the men, killing them. “It seemed to me like they were targeting the man [Bella] they shot,” the witness said. “There was nothing violent happening on the streets when the men fired. They arrived on a motorbike, stopped in front of us, and the passenger immediately got his gun out to fire.” The witness, who underscored that the shooting happened at night, said that he was not sure whether the alleged security force members were in army or gendarmerie uniforms.

Medical records Human Rights Watch reviewed indicate that the bullet entered the middle of Bella’s forehead, killing him instantly. The witness said that, upon seeing Bella fall, Bah attempted to assist him, but was also shot. The witness said that he immediately ran away. As he fled, he heard further shots and a bullet struck his thigh, causing a wound that was visible on his leg.

On November 14, Guinea’s media regulator suspended the accreditation of a Radio France International journalist, Mouctar Bah, after he reported that Bella’s family stated that he had been killed by members of Guinea’s “red berets,” an elite military unit. Bella’s family repeated this allegation when interviewed by Human Rights Watch on January 8.

On November 16, the day of Mamadou Bella Baldé’s burial, a soldier, Vivien Gérard, was severely beaten in the Bambeto neighborhood, where the funeral took place, allegedly by young men angry at Baldé’s death. Gérard was eventually evacuated to Morocco for treatment.   

Human Rights Watch also documented the death of one person and the wounding of several others from stray bullets fired recklessly into the air during protests that hit the victim on their descent. On October 23, a man said a stray bullet injured his 9-year old daughter in the foot. “We were all inside watching television when she was hit,” he said, pointing to a bullet hole in the ceiling. On the same day, a woman said a stray bullet hit her thigh while she cooked food in her courtyard. “I thought it was an insect bite,” she said. “But when I saw the flow of blood from my leg, I knew it was something else. I never go near demonstrations, and I prefer to stay at home to stay safe.”

Some non-fatal shootings had devastating impacts. A stray bullet that witnesses said was fired by gendarmes pursuing demonstrators through the Hamdallaye neighborhood on November 13 struck a 10-year old boy, Mamadou Hady Barry, as he returned from Koranic school, hitting him in the back. Barry was lying on a bare mattress when interviewed on January 12, unable to move his legs and sipping water from a ladle held by his father. When interviewed again on April 13, Barry’s family said he now crawls on his knees to move around, and that he has not regained the use of his legs. “He was struck right before our house,” his father said. “We’d closed one of the doors because of the level of insecurity during demonstrations. Otherwise, he would have already been inside.”

Criminal Conduct by the Security Forces

Witnesses also alleged that police and gendarmes frequently engaged in criminal conduct, including theft and banditry, when policing demonstrations in 2018. More than 20 witnesses, from Hamdallaye, Bambeto, Wanindara, and Matam neighborhoods, said that police and gendarmes stole cell phones and cash, carted off merchandise from small businesses, smashed windshields, and vandalized homes. Human Rights Watch documented numerous such incidents in a July 2018 report.

On November 8, as part of an hours-long crackdown on the Wanindara neighborhood following the killing, allegedly by demonstrators, of a police officer, CMIS officers vandalized and stole goods in the neighborhood, witnesses alleged. “I hid myself in my house with my children,” said one woman. “But two police officers forced the door and ordered us out of the house. I had one million GF (US$108) and a telephone in a bag, but they cut it off me with a knife.”

Another woman, Djalikatou Barry, said that on the same day a police officer hit her in the face and then stole a purse containing money she earned selling bananas at a small roadside stall. “Three police officers, in black uniforms, stopped me in the courtyard in front of my house,” she said. “One of them hit me and then put my bag into his uniform. My nose was bleeding. I went to a clinic nearby and they did an x-ray but fortunately it wasn’t broken.”

Several business owners in Wanindara said that police had stolen or damaged merchandise during the November 8 operation. “The police came into our yard and used their batons to smash the front and back windows of all the 13 cars parked here,” said a parking lot attendant. Other vendors said police stole or destroyed motorbikes, televisions, chairs, cash, and telephones.

“They burned a motorbike that was in the courtyard, smashed a TV screen, and burned some plastic chairs that I had in my store,” said one shop owner. “They parked a pick-up truck outside our courtyard, and then climbed the gate to get in,” said another vendor. “I hid in my shop with my wife and our 8-month old baby. But in my hurry to hide I’d left my bag outside. They stole 280,000 FG ($30) cash and a telephone.”

Arbitrary Arrests After Killing of Police Officer

Witnesses said that the police and gendarmerie on several occasions arbitrarily arrested people in neighborhoods where demonstrations occurred, with family members subsequently forced to pay bribes to free those detained. Human Rights Watch documented several such incidents in a July 2018 report.

On November 8, the day a police officer was stabbed to death, CMIS forces detained more than two dozen residents of Wanindara, in several cases arresting people with little apparent connection to the officer’s killing. “I had just come back from a baptism,” said an elderly Wanindara resident, who was arrested and detained by the CMIS for several days:

I saw police officers on the main road, and I saw one throw a stone toward my house. I said, “Stop throwing stones,” and they came over toward me. They then made me climb into one of their vehicles. One of them said, “You’re the rebels who killed our friend.” I said, “No, please let me go, it’s time for the call to prayer, and I do the call to prayer.” But they wouldn’t release me.

A teacher at a local Koranic school said that after arriving back in Wanindara that afternoon, he could not find a taxi, so he decided to walk home. The police stopped him and told him to get into a pick-up truck:

They said, “Do you know why we arrested you? They killed a police officer today, stabbed him.” I told them I didn’t know about the incident. But they took me to the CMIS building in Anco 5. I told them that I was just a Koranic schoolteacher, but they detained me for almost a week.

Several witnesses said they had to pay to free family members who were detained during the CMIS operation. “I got a call from a police officer saying that I should negotiate a sum to free two of my nephews,” said a shop owner. “He initially asked for 2 million FG ($216) per person, but I ended up paying 750,000 FG ($81) each.” A local UFDG activist said that on the same day he paid 500,000 FG ($54) to secure the release of his younger brother.

By the end of the day on November 8, approximately 25 people arrested in Wanindara were in detention at Conakry’s judicial police headquarters (Direction Centrale de la Police Judiciaire), where they remained for several days without their detention being reviewed by a judge. On November 13, the police held a news conference in which Guinea’s principal television stations filmed the 25 people standing in front of a table of knives, scissors, and other weapons.

State television coverage later that night implied that the detainees were implicated in the police officer’s death and the killing of two civilians on November 7 that Human Rights Watch documented earlier in this report. The state television coverage showed footage of the table of knives arranged in front of the detainees but did not state that the civilians had died from gunshot wounds.

Several of the detainees at the news conference said that it unfairly associated them with crimes that they had not committed. “I hadn’t seen any of the knives before,” one of the detainees, who featured in the television footage, told Human Rights Watch. “Later that day, after the filming had finished, four of us were called into the commander’s office and freed.”

Other detainees were, following the press conference, held pending further investigations, with several detained for several weeks. “After the filming of the press conference, my brother and I were brought to court and then placed in detention,” said one of the 25 detainees. “We only go out in January.”

Lack of Justice; Recommendations

Human Rights Watch found no evidence that members of the security forces have been suspended, disciplined, or prosecuted for alleged misconduct in the 2018 protests. Guinea’s Ministry of Justice did not respond to a March 25 letter from Human Rights Watch requesting information on the status of investigations into deaths, of both protesters and law enforcement personnel, during 2018’s demonstrations.

The lack of progress in investigations reflects a wider failure to adequately investigate alleged killings by the security forces since Condé came to power. Even in the case of Kaly Diallo, whose February 4 conviction is the only known example of a member of the security forces being held accountable for a protester’s death, there may have been little concrete evidence linking him to the protester’s killing. Although the prosecutor asked the court to acquit Diallo, the government held up the conviction as one example of “its determination to shed light on emblematic criminal cases.”

In May 2013, following a spate of political violence in which at least 12 people were killed – in several cases in shootings by the security forces – Condé formed a special pool of judges tasked with investigating crimes committed by both protesters and the security forces. Although Condé at the time said that “no one is above the law,” including gendarmes and police, ultimately no members of the security forces faced trial for the 2013 violence.

Law enforcement and judiciary officials said that the chaotic, violent nature of protests, immediate disturbance of the crime scene, the lack of trust between the local community and law enforcement, and unwillingness of witnesses to come forward, always made it difficult to investigate deaths during protests.

Despite the lack of success in 2013, however, creating a team of judges to investigate deaths during protests, supported by a detachment of police and gendarmes, could help address these challenges. The creation of a special unit could help ensure that adequate resources are available for investigations and provide opportunities for judges, police, and gendarmes to develop expertise in investigating demonstration-related abuses, including through training from international donors. Establishing the unit as a separate entity from the normal chain of command for the police and gendarmerie could also help guarantee independence from political pressure. A panel of three judges completed their investigation into the September 2009 stadium massacre in November 2017, charging 14 high-level officials. That case is now awaiting trial.

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