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Guinea's Col. Mamady Doumbouya, center, is heavily guarded by soldiers after a meeting with ECOWAS delegation in Conakry, Guinea on September 10, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo/Sunday Alamba

(Nairobi) – Military forces responsible for a coup d’état in Guinea should immediately restore fundamental human rights, Human Rights Watch said today.

They should ensure respect for rights within the security forces and ensure the lawful and humane treatment of former President Alpha Condé and any others in custody. All detainees should be brought before a judge or released, and anyone detained arbitrarily should be released immediately. The coup leaders and forces should protect the lives and property of all Guineans.

“The unrest generated by the recent overthrow of the government should not create a void in the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The new authorities should ensure that the human rights of all Guineans are respected, including their right to vote freely in elections.”

On September 5, 2021, Guinean army officers of the self-proclaimed National Committee for Reconciliation and Development (Comité national du rassemblement et du développement, CNRD) overthrew the government of Alpha Condé, 83. Condé won the October 2020 presidential election, after a year-long effort to secure a third term in office despite the constitution’s two-term limit.

After taking over state television with other soldiers, Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, the head of Guinea’s special forces, proclaimed the dissolution of the government, institutions, and constitution, and imposed a nationwide curfew. He said “the politization of the public administration, poverty, and endemic corruption” led to his forces toppling Condé.

In the early hours of September 5, residents of Conakry, Guinea’s capital, reported to Human Rights Watch heavy gunfire near the presidential palace, and media said that army officers had arrested Condé. The Defense Ministry said on the same day that it had repelled an attack by special forces against the presidency, despite a video, which Human Rights Watch has been unable to authenticate, circulating on social media, showing a barefoot Condé sitting on a sofa, apparently being held by soldiers.

Later on September 5, Doumbouya instructed the country's cabinet to attend a mandatory meeting on September 6, adding that failing to comply with this order would be considered rebellion. During that meeting, Doumbouya promised to form a national unity government and announced a transition, without, however, specifying its duration. He also said that government officials are banned from traveling until further notice, and must hand over their official vehicles to the military.

On September 7, the new military authorities released 79 political prisoners. They included leaders and members of the main opposition party, the Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea (Union des forces démocratiques de Guinée, UFDG), such as Abdoulaye Bah, and of the National Front for the Defense of the Constitution (Front national pour la défense de la Constitution, FNDC), a coalition of Guinean civil society groups and opposition parties, such as Oumar Sylla (alias Foniké Mengué).

In the days following the October 2020 presidential election, security forces arrested over 300 opposition leaders, supporters, and others perceived to be close to the opposition. Most of them had remained behind bars on politically motivated charges until the overthrow of the government.

On September 7, the new leaders also announced the release of more prisoners in the coming weeks. Questions remain, however, regarding who qualifies as a “political prisoner,” how many detainees will be freed, and whether any conditions will be imposed on those released. Under international human rights law, no one should be detained without a clear basis in law and all detainees are entitled to due process rights and to be treated humanely. Anyone detained should be brought before a judge within 48 hours or released, Human Rights Watch said.

“The release of political prisoners is a good step, and I welcome it, but does it mean that the new military authorities will respect human rights and act differently?” a human rights activist in Conakry told Human Rights Watch. “Will we, the people of Guinea, be free to take to the streets and protest? Will we be allowed to say what we want, to criticize and challenge the government?”

Condé, celebrated as the first freely elected Guinean president since independence in 1958, came to power in 2010 with popular support. His election raised hopes that the profound human rights and governance problems that underscored decades of abuse in Guinea could be addressed. Yet, despite some meaningful economic gains and development, his government was characterized by widespread allegations of corruption, mounting ethnic tension, and an increasingly brutal crackdown on its opponents.

After some initial progress, steps toward justice stalled for the September 28, 2009 massacre and rapes of demonstrators by Guinean security forces.

International law is clear on the need for justice for serious crimes and places an obligation on countries to provide victims of human rights abuses with an effective remedy. Fair and credible prosecutions of serious crimes are also an essential means of providing redress and rebuilding respect for the rule of law. Both the United Nations and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights have principles against amnesties that would extend to serious crimes, reinforcing the importance of justice for these crimes, Human Rights Watch said.

Violent attacks by security forces on ordinary Guineans were commonplace during Condé’s administration, including the use of excessive force against opposition-led demonstrations. But no member of the military has been held to account for the attacks. 

In the lead up to and during a March 22, 2020 constitutional referendum that enabled legislative elections and Condé to run for a third term, security forces violently cracked down on opposition supporters in Conakry and other towns across Guinea, killing at least 8 people, including 2 children, and wounding over 20 others. They also failed to protect people from election-related and intercommunal violence and committed human rights abuses in Nzérékoré, southeastern Guinea, during the same period. At least 12 people died in clashes between security forces and opposition supporters during the October 2020 elections. More than 300 were arbitrarily arrested and at least 4 of them died in custody between November and January.

The international community has widely criticized the overthrow of Guinea’s government. The United Nations, the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, France, and the United States have all condemned the coup, calling for a return to democratic rule. On September 7, during a virtual summit, ECOWAS leaders decided to suspend Guinea’s membership and called for a return to the constitutional order and for Condé’s immediate release.

In Guinea, the UFDG issued two statements on September 5 and 8, taking note of the coup leader’s declarations, and saying that Condé’s government had been illegitimate and anti-constitutional. The FNDC leader, Cellou Dalein Diallo, told the media that he does not oppose the overthrow of the government, calling it a “patriotic act.”

In a September 7 statement, a major Guinean human rights organization, the Guinean Organization for the Defense of Human Rights, (Organisation Guinéenne de Défense des Droits de l’Homme, OGDH) called for respect for citizens' rights and freedoms and for an inclusive dialogue that would allow the return to constitutional order.

“The release of political prisoners is a positive development but needs to be accompanied by other steps to protect human rights, including credible elections,” Allegrozzi said. “The new authorities should immediately release everyone who is detained unlawfully, ensure discipline within the security forces and send a strong message that human rights abuses are prohibited and will be appropriately punished.”

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