(Nairobi, April 29, 2020) – The authorities in Guinea have harassed, intimidated, and arbitrarily arrested opposition members and supporters in recent weeks, in an atmosphere of insecurity linked to restrictions because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Human Rights Watch said today.
On March 27, 2020, President Alpha Condé announced a state of emergency and a series of measures to curb the spread of Covid-19, including closing borders, banning large gatherings, shutting down schools, and restricting movement out of Conakry, the capital. Three days later, he imposed a 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew, and on April 13 ordered the compulsory use of protective masks and extended the state of emergency until May 15.
“Containing the virus requires the government to strengthen confidence with Guineans to ensure that social distancing and other protective behaviors are respected.” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “In a country plagued by a weak healthcare system, lessons should be drawn from the Ebola experience, by involving and winning the trust of local communities.”
Health authorities have confirmed 1,240 Covid-19 cases and seven deaths as of April 29, the majority in Conakry. The number of cases has increased steadily since the first was confirmed on March 13. Given limited testing capacity, the number of infections is most likely higher. Guinea has only four testing laboratories, three of them in Conakry.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 15 victims, family members of victims, and witnesses, as well as 15 medical workers, journalists, lawyers, opposition politicians, and activists between March 26 and April 26. Human Rights Watch shared its findings via email on April 23 with Albert Damatang Camara, the security and civilian protection minister, requesting responses to specific questions. Camara has not replied.
Guinea only recently recovered from the Ebola outbreak, which infected over 3,800 people and killed more than 2,500 before it was declared over in June 2016. Guinea’s health system is not prepared to deal with a deluge of Covid-19 cases, making compliance with social distancing instructions especially important, Human Rights Watch said. However, security forces are abusing people and enforcing the current emergency measures in a manner that undermines public trust.
Opposition members and representatives of nongovernmental groups expressed fears that the government could use the crisis as an excuse to quell dissent and violate rights. A leader of the National Front for the Defense of the Constitution (Le Front national pour la défense de la Constitution, FNDC), a coalition of nongovernmental groups and opposition parties, said: “We have used public protests as a primary means to express our frustrations. Emergency measures limit our freedom of assembly. We accept them because of Covid-19. But we are not going to accept them forever.”
International human rights law requires that restrictions on rights for reasons of public health or national emergency must be neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application, of limited duration, respectful of human dignity, and subject to review.
On April 18, the FNDC called for a stay-at-home strike in Conakry on April 21 to protest Condé’s decision to hold a session to appoint the president of the National Assembly and the 114 newly elected legislators, which would require elected officials to gather. The FNDC said the decision contravenes the government’s ban of large gatherings to curb the spread of Covid-19.
For the past several months, in the lead up to and during the controversial March 22 constitutional referendum and legislative elections, security forces have violently cracked down on opposition members and supporters. Opposition groups boycotted the vote, accusing President Condé of planning to use the constitutional change to prolong his stay in office.
On April 14, gendarmes beat and arrested a 38-year-old FNDC member at his home in Tougue, Central Guinea, allegedly for setting fire to the Tougue gendarmerie station on February 28. “He had malaria and was on drip when he was arrested,” a family member said. “Six gendarmes broke into his home, kicked and slapped him several times. When I visited him the following day at the station in Labe, Fouta Djallon region, I asked the gendarmes to take him to the hospital. They refused and sent a doctor to his cell instead.”
On April 16 a policeman broke into the home of a nurse in Conakry’s Hamdallaye neighborhood and beat her, accusing her of supporting the opposition. “The policeman beat her and said: ‘You are bothering us too much’ – because she lives in an opposition stronghold area,” a witness said. “Then, he beat her again with a truncheon, all over her body, including on her face. Her nose was swollen. She was in pain for several days”.
On April 17, police arbitrarily arrested Oumar Sylla, a FNDC member, at his home Conakry. They detained him first at the office of the general intelligence headquarters and then at the judicial police headquarters (Direction de la Police Judiciare) in Conakry until April 24, when he was taken before a court of first instance in Conakry, accused of spreading false information, and taken to Conakry central prison. Sylla’s lawyers had refused to assist him until his case was presented to the prosecutor to protest what they described as “illegal behavior and methods of the police.”
Conakry residents described an atmosphere of insecurity during the curfew.
On April 8, a 30-year-old woman said a man in uniform who accused her of violating the curfew robbed and beat her. “At around 10 p.m., I was in bed,” she said. “There was no light in the neighborhood. I heard noise and opened my door. I found a man in uniform with a gun. It was too dark to tell whether he was a policeman or a gendarme. He told me I was breaking the curfew. I replied I wasn’t, as I was in my own house. He threatened to arrest me, then slapped and punched me. He stole my phone and laptop before leaving. I did not react because I was scared that he would rape me.”
Six people said that their shops, in Conakry’s Kagbélen market, were looted on April 1 and 2, during the curfew. One of the shop owners said: “I got to my clothing shop in the morning of April 3 and found that it had been broken into. The door was destroyed and all my goods worth about 60 million francs [US$ 624] were stolen.”
The victims and other traders staged a protest and built barricades at the Kagbélen market on April 3, accusing security forces of looting their shops. A union representative said that the looting stopped after he reported the burglaries to the mayor of Dubreka township, who has jurisdiction over Kagbélen market.
“Abuses by the security forces are fueling an already deep-seated distrust of the authorities, adding an obstacle to the fight against Covid-19,” Allegrozzi said. “The government should rein in its security forces and ensure they respect human rights in enforcing restrictions.”