A sign showing Conakry’s central prison. Photo taken on March 11, 2021, in Conakry, Guinea.  © 2021 Mamoudou Diallo

(Nairobi) – Four men detained as suspected political opposition supporters died in Guinea between November 2020 and January 2021, Human Rights Watch said today. The four men were among hundreds of opposition supporters or suspected opposition sympathizers arrested around the time of the March 2020 referendum and the October 2020 presidential election.

Guinean authorities have blamed these deaths on illness or natural causes, but family members of victims, their lawyers, and human rights activists said that the four died from torture or other ill-treatment, including poor detention conditions and lack of access to adequate medical care for serious ailments. The government should ensure a thorough, independent, and transparent investigation into the men’s deaths.

“These deaths under suspicious circumstances raise serious concerns and should be promptly and thoroughly investigated,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should establish the cause of these deaths, provide full details to the families, and appropriately prosecute anyone responsible for wrongdoing.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed by telephone nine family members of the victims, a neighbor of one of the victims, four lawyers, and three members of Guinean human rights organizations between January 21 and February 7. Human Rights Watch also reviewed six photographs showing wounds on the body of one of the victims. Human Rights Watch wrote to Guinea’s justice minister, Mory Doumbouya, on March 5 to share its findings and request information on specific questions. The justice minister did not reply.

Roger Bamba, 40, a member of the youth council of the Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea (Union des forces démocratiques de Guinée, UFDG), Guinea’s main opposition party, died on December 17. The justice minister’s spokesperson said Bamba died of cirrhosis of the liver, but Bamba’s wife accused the government of a “state crime” and said Bamba was not provided with adequate medical attention after he fell ill while in detention.

Ibrahima Sow, 62, died a month earlier, on November 16. Guinean authorities said his death was caused by diabetes, but his family says he died as a result of torture in detention.

On December 5, Lamarana Diallo, 22, died at his sister’s home on the day of his release. Family members and a witness said that prison guards brought Diallo home in appalling condition and that he died as a result of torture in detention. The government rejected this accusation.

Mamadou Oury Barry, 21, died on January 16. His family and lawyer said he died in his cell and did not receive proper medical attention for the ill-treatment and an illness he suffered in detention, but authorities stated that he died at the hospital of “natural causes.”

Four relatives of three of the men said they had been threatened by the authorities for exposing abuses their loved ones suffered while in prison. “Since we told the media that my father was tortured in prison, authorities and security forces are after us,” one of Sow’s relatives said. “Men in plain clothes came to our neighborhood asking about me and my family. My brother left the country out of fear of arrest. I’ve received anonymous calls asking me to meet a Colonel regarding my father’s case. I’m scared.”

The four men were all held in pretrial detention at Central Prison, well-known for its poor conditions and severe overcrowding. Designed for 300 detainees, it currently holds more than 1,500.

"Overcrowding is a big problem in our detention centers," a Guinean human rights lawyer, Thierno Souleymane Baldé, told Human Rights Watch. "It is caused, among other things, by the widespread use of provisional detention. An estimated 60 percent of prisoners in Guinea are held in prolonged pretrial detention." 

Guinea’s main prison in Conakry is overflowing with hundreds of opposition members and supporters arrested by security forces in the periods surrounding the March 2020 constitutional referendum and the October 2020 presidential elections. “People are being held in overcrowded and inhumane conditions, and the rising death toll is a predictable consequence,” said a Guinean human rights lawyer representing several political detainees.

Guinean media reported that, on February 7, Mamadou Aliou Diaby, a deaf and mute detainee in Central Prison, was found dead, hanging from a bedsheet; and that on January 31, the head cook at Central Prison, a woman, Mamadou Hawa Baldé, was found dead in one of the prison’s storage rooms. The authorities promised to conduct an autopsy, but media reported that she was buried on February 1 without an autopsy. Authorities have not communicated publicly on Diaby’s death.

Human Rights Watch has for many years documented poor prison conditions across Guinea, as well as arbitrary arrests, detentions, prosecutions, killings, enforced disappearances, threats, harassment, and intimidation against government opponents and critics.

On January 19, the United States Embassy in Guinea expressed concern about “delays of due process and targeting of the political opposition by the government,” and said that the deaths in detention of opposition members “call into question Guinea’s commitment to the rule of law.” On January 21, the European Union issued a statement urging Guinean authorities to open investigations into the deaths of political opponents in detention and to ensure justice. This call was reiterated on January 27 by the French foreign affairs minister, who asked Guinean authorities “to shed light” on the deaths in detention, waving the threat of "measures" to be taken against Conakry.

On February 8, members of the Guinean Human Rights Organization (Organisation guinéenne des droits de l’homme, OGDH) were denied access to Central Prison. “Prison authorities said we needed an authorization, but detainees have the right to visits,” a representative of OGDH told Human Rights Watch.

Guinean authorities are obliged under national and international law, including the 2014 “Guidelines on the Conditions of Arrest, Police Custody and Pre-Trial Detention in Africa” (Luanda Guidelines) of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to provide detainees with the same health care available to people who are at liberty and, under international standards, pretrial detention should only be used as a last resort. Under international human rights law, Guinean authorities have an obligation to conduct a credible, thorough, and independent investigation and to account for any death in detention. The investigation should identify anyone responsible if the death was due to negligence or unlawful action and should lead to their prosecution. Failure to investigate and prosecute those responsible would violate Guinea’s obligations to protect people from arbitrary deprivation of life, and to provide an effective remedy.

The United Nations and the African Union, including the UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and the AU special rapporteur on prisons and conditions of detention, should provide technical and other assistance to support the Guinean investigation, or, to conduct their own investigations if the Guinean authorities fail to act.

“The deaths in detention of four political prisoners in just two months shows that prisoners’ health and safety are in grave danger in Guinea,” Allegrozzi said. “Guinean authorities, with the support of international partners, should urgently investigate the recent deaths of prisoners and release all those held solely for exercising their constitutionally protected rights to peaceful protest or political expression.”

For more details and accounts from witnesses, please see below.
Ibrahima Sow

Ibrahima Sow, a 62-year-old trader, died on November 16, in the Ignace Deen hospital in Conakry, following his transfer there from the Conakry’s Central Prison. His family said that gendarmes arrested him on October 24 at his home in Conakry’s Haifa Minière neighborhood and accused him of being a member of the political opposition.

The arrest took place on the day that Guinea’s electoral commission declared that the incumbent President Alpha Condé had won the presidential election, amid unrest in various Conakry neighborhoods, including in Haifa Minière, where opposition supporters clashed with those of the ruling party and security forces.

Sow was charged with “violent and unlawful assembly,” and transferred from a gendarmerie station to Central Prison on October 25, family members said.

Following Sow’s death, the justice minister’s spokesperson said in a statement that Sow had tested positive for Covid-19 upon arrival at the prison and had been treated at the prison health facility until he recovered on November 13, when he was discharged and taken back to his cell. The spokesperson also said that prison doctors monitoring his health decided to transfer Sow on November 14 to the Ignace Deen hospital, where he died of diabetes two days later.

Four of Sow’s family members, as well as Guinean rights organizations and Amnesty International, however, said Sow’s death was caused by torture or ill-treatment in detention.

Sow’s 32-year-old daughter confirmed that her father had Covid-19 and was treated at the prison’s health center. But she said he had serious wounds, indicating that he had been ill-treated or tortured the day before he died:

I used to go to the Central Prison to visit my father and bring him food. He was in good health. The day before he died, I went to the prison and I was shocked to see him in catastrophic conditions. He could not talk; he could not move or stand up. His arms were covered with wounds, like burn wounds. I immediately called the prison doctor and asked him to do something. The doctor decided to transfer him to the Ignace Deen hospital. I stayed with my father until he passed away the following day at about 11 p.m. at the hospital. My father never suffered from diabetes. I don’t know why the doctor and the authorities said he died of diabetes. I think my father was tortured in detention.

A forensics doctor who analyzed six photographs of the injuries on Sow’s arms said that he observed “a set of lesioned areas that appear linear, parallel to each other, and with blisters,” which he said suggested burn injuries.

Lamarana Diallo

Lamarana Diallo, a 22-year-old driver, died on December 4, the day of his release from Central Prison. He was arrested on April 2, in Conakry’s Wanindara neighborhood, during the unrest that followed the controversial March 22 referendum, but had been unaccounted for since, said family members who spoke to the media and Amnesty International.

Diallo’s family members told the media that prison guards took him to his sister’s home in Conakry’s Wanindara neighborhood on December 4, explaining that he had just been released from the Central Prison. Relatives said that Diallo was in very poor condition, with wounds all over his body and that some of his front teeth were missing. A 29-year-old woman who assisted Diallo after he was taken to his sister’s home confirmed his condition:

I was in the street when I saw two prison guards and Diallo. One prison guard was asking around about Diallo’s sister. I offered to help because I know Diallo’s sister. She’s a trader, like me. We both sell our products at the same market. The sister used to tell me that her brother, whom I had seen once, had disappeared since his arrest. […] I told the guards where the sister was. When I looked at Diallo, I was surprised to see that he could barely walk and talk. He looked extremely tired, and his front teeth were gone.

The guards took Diallo to his sister who took him back home. I went there to help because Diallo looked really sick. His sister and I washed him and tried to assist him, while Diallo’s brother called for a doctor. Diallo’s body was covered with wounds; his left hand was paralyzed. He needed help to stand up. He told us that prison guards had beaten him. He said: “They hit me, but I didn’t do anything.” Diallo’s sister was crying. When the doctor arrived at about 9 p.m., I went back home. Diallo’s sister called me after midnight to inform me that Diallo had died.

Local media reported that Diallo’s body was buried on December 5 at Wanindara’s cemetery.

Roger Bamba

Roger Bamba, a prominent member of the UFDG, Guinea’s main opposition party, and a parliamentary assistant, died at Conakry’s Ignace Deen hospital, to which he was transferred to from Central Prison, in the early hours of December 17.

The justice minister’s spokesman said that Bamba died "from liver cirrhosis." But his family members, close friends, lawyers, and members of the UFDG said that Bamba did not suffer from cirrhosis before his arrest and that they believe Bamba was denied adequate health care in detention. The UFDG President, Cellou Diallo, also said Bamba was not given proper health care in detention.

Bamba’s wife said:                                              

My husband was in good health before his arrest. I visited him in prison, and he was in good health. He called me from there at around 8 p.m. on December 16; he said, “I am sick.” I went to the hospital and I could barely recognize him. He had changed, his face and body had changed. His belly was swollen. I was in shock. The doctor said he needed a blood transfusion. I went to find the blood and came back to the hospital at about 10 p.m. with it. The doctor said he had to wait before doing the transfusion. Roger was in real pain. I was beside him. He told me he could not breathe. He died after midnight.

Two UFDG members and two of Bamba’s relatives said that police officers arrested him in September at the office of the Secretary General of the Guinean National Assembly following an exchange of messages he had with a member of the ruling party. He was charged with "producing, circulating and making available statements likely to disturb public order and security," and was held at Conakry’s judicial police station for a day, then transferred to Central Prison.

On December 22, his family and lawyers wrote to the President of the Dixinn Court of First Instance requesting for an autopsy to establish the circumstances of Bamba’s death. On December 28, however, the family and lawyers withdrew this request.

“When a representative of the Justice Minister goes public and tells the media that Bamba died of cirrhosis, what’s the interest of carrying out an autopsy?” a close friend and colleague of Bamba told Human Rights Watch. “They [the authorities] seemed to already know the causes of death before a forensic doctor could establish them. This discouraged the family and pushed them to renounce to the autopsy.”

Bamba’s body was buried on January 10 in his home village, Lola, in Guinea’s Forest region.

Mamadou Oury Barry

Gendarmes arrested Mamadou Oury Barry, a 21-year-old driver, on August 5, in Conakry’s Coza neighborhood on suspicion that he had participated in anti-government violent demonstrations led by the opposition. He was held at a gendarmerie brigade in Conakry until August 7, when he was transferred to Central Prison. His lawyer said that Barry was charged with “voluntary assault and battery.”

Three of Barry’s family members said he did not get adequate medical care in detention and died in his cell on January 16. Barry’s mother said:

On January 14, my son called me and said he had a stomachache. I went to the prison and asked the guards to take him to the hospital. They replied that they would take him to the prison health center. But I knew that health center wasn’t good enough and had no medicine available. So, I bought some medicine with the intention of bringing it to the prison for my son the following day. But when I brought the medicine, on January 15, I was turned back. Prison guards said they could not accept them without a medical prescription. On January 16, at around 2 p.m., an inmate who shared the cell with my son called me and told me that my son had died. So, I called a prison guard who confirmed the information and said the body had been taken to the mortuary of Ignace Deen hospital.

A relative who identified the body at the hospital mortuary on January 16 said that mortuary attendants told him that Barry’s body had been taken there from Central Prison. But authorities stated that he died at the hospital of “natural causes.”

After Barry’s death, his family members spoke to local media to denounce the death in detention and lack of adequate medical care. Barry’s uncle said that on January 18 he met the head of Central Prison in his office to discuss how to recover Barry’s body from the mortuary: “He told me that, given the family’s public declarations, it would be complicated to collect the body. He suggested that the family issue a public retraction or correction of our initial statements saying Barry did not die at the hospital but in prison.”

On January 19, Barry’s family filed a formal request with the prosecutor of Dixinn Court of First Instance to recover Barry’s body from the mortuary. The family eventually collected Barry’s body for burial on February 2.