Guinea

Guinea: "Soldiers were shooting everywhere" - The security forces' response to peaceful demands for change

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"Before she died, she asked her parents to bring the soldier who shot her to justice". A 25-year-old woman, who died of gunshot wounds on 18 February 2007 in Labé.

1. INTRODUCTION

Over 130 dead, including several young children killed by bullets, more than 1,500 injured, detainees tortured and women raped - this is the provisional tally after two months of repression in January and February 2007 by the Guinean security forces acting, more often than not, completely outside the law. At the beginning of 2007, Guinea's two principal trade unions, supported by the majority of opposition parties, called a general strike, paralyzing the country. Demonstrators thronged the streets, calling for economic and political change

In response to the population's mainly peaceful demands, the security forces and, in particular, the army - which is answerable directly to the Head of State, President Lansana Conté - used excessive lethal force, shooting at people who were unarmed, entering private homes and killing or injuring their inhabitants.

Unlike other protest movements that had been violently suppressed in the past, this wave of demonstrations was not to be stifled by security forces' bullets. Mass mobilisation ended only when President Conté consented to appoint a prime minister who met the criteria of independence and impartiality demanded by the trade unions and civil society associations.

This report is based on a three-week fact-finding mission undertaken in Guinea by an Amnesty International delegation in April 2007. The organization's representatives visited Conakry and several other towns, including Siguiri, Kankan, Labé, Kissidougou, Faranah, Mamou and Kindia. They met dozens of victims and their families as well as witnesses who all reported excessive use of force by members of the security forces. The delegation also met members of the new Guinean government, which was put in place in March 2007, including the Minister of Justice and Human Rights and the Minister of Interior and Security. The delegation also requested a meeting with the Minister of Defence, but his schedule was such that he was unable to meet the representatives of Amnesty International. The new Guinean government, which faces enormous challenges in its quest for justice, truth and reparation for victims and their families, adopted, on 18 May 2007, a law setting up a Commission of Inquiry into the events of January and February 2007. Given the climate of total impunity, which has reigned for decades in the country, establishing the truth and bringing justice will not be easy.

To prevent further human rights violations from occurring in Guinea and institute the rule of law based on an independent justice system, it is vital that the newly-created Commission of Inquiry carry out its work in a thorough and impartial manner and that its work leads to the identification and prosecution of those responsible for extrajudicial executions, torture and the excessive use of force at all levels.

Amnesty International calls on Guinea's new government to give the new Commission of Inquiry the powers it needs to shed light on the events of January and February 2007. The organization calls on the international community to support this quest for truth and justice.

It is, furthermore, essential to ensure that the security forces are trained with regard to international standards on the use of force and are answerable for their actions before the courts. Several weeks before the publication of this report, in May 2007, at least eight people were killed and more than 200 injured by shots fired by soldiers who had taken to the streets to demand payment of outstanding wages. This demonstrates that members of the Guinean armed forces continue to represent a danger for the population. It is the responsibility of the Guinean authorities and, above all, President Conté to put an immediate stop to this. It is vital that Guinea ensure that its army acts in a responsible manner, and in accordance with the rule of law. Only then can the country turn its back on a past where abuses went unpunished, and look forward to a future where human rights are respected.

2. "WE WANT CHANGE"

In January and February 2007, a wave of peaceful demonstrations swept through Guinea. The accompanying use of excessive force by the security forces left 130 people dead and more than 1,500 injured(1). This violence is the latest example to date of a series of cases of excessive use of force ordered and supported by the highest authorities of the State over a period of almost 10 years(2). Whenever political opponents or citizens, exasperated at difficult living conditions or a lack of political transparency, have demonstrated their discontent, notably during elections, the Guinean security forces have not hesitated to fire into crowds of demonstrators, causing heavy loss of life.

The January-February 2007 movement arose as a result of a profound wish for change that had been felt in civil society for months. Against the background of a serious economic crisis due, notably, to poor governance and the total lack of accountability of political and military leaders, civil society organizations came together, in early 2006, to demand change. This movement was supported by the main opposition parties. In February and June 2006, the trade unions organized general strikes to protest about the lack of infrastructure and services. The strikes, which affected the entire country and paralyzed activity in Guinea for several days, were suppressed by the security forces, which used excessive force against demonstrators and students. According to information received by Amnesty International, the security forces used tear gas, beat students with batons and fired live bullets.

Despite these calls for change, President Conté, who took power in 1984 following a coup d'état, failed to respond satisfactorily to any of the civil society and union demands (3). At the beginning of January 2007, Guinea's two principal unions, the National Confederation of Guinean Workers (Confédération nationale des travailleurs de Guinée, CNTG) and the Guinean Workers' Union (Union syndicale des travailleurs de Guinée, USTG), supported by 14 opposition parties, called for a general strike on 10 January 2007. The trade unions were protesting against corruption, misappropriation of public funds and President Conté's "meddling" in judicial matters (4).

In January and February 2007, demonstrations were organized in Conakry and in other towns, including Nzérékoré, Kissidougou, Siguiri and Kankan. Thousands of people peacefully thronged the streets, chanting "We want change". These demonstrations quickly paralyzed the entire country and led to the most serious political crisis Guinea had known for years.

President Conté's government initially attempted to suppress the movement by force. Members of the security forces fired live bullets at peaceful demonstrators, killing and injuring some of them. Despite this use of force and the arrest of some civil society leaders and trade unionists, the general strike continued and, on 21 January 2007, the trade unions made the appointment of a consensus government a pre-condition for the suspension of their movement. The following day, a large demonstration was held in Conakry provoking a particularly vicious crackdown from the security forces, which caused the death of at least 30 people and injured dozens more. Finally, on 9 February 2007, President Conté agreed to appoint Eugène Camara, who was already a member of his government, as Prime Minister. This provoked a spontaneous reaction from the population, who immediately took to the streets to protest at the appointment of this person, considered to be too close to the Head of State.

Clashes between the demonstrators and the security forces increased in number and, for the first time since President Conté came to power, a state of siege was decreed on 12 February 2007. The decree transferred to the military authorities powers that normally lie with the civilian authorities. It notably authorized placing under house arrest "anyone whose activities are deemed a risk to public security or public order, or who seeks to obstruct the work of the public authorities" and banned "public or private meetings likely to cause or fuel disorder". The decree also threatened the right to freedom of expression. Article 6 of the decree states that "the competent military authorities are authorized to take whatever measures may be appropriate to ensure control of the press and publications of all kinds, as well as radio and television broadcasts".

During the state of siege which lasted until 23 February 2007 powers that normally lie with the civilian authorities were transferred to the military authorities. Numerous human rights violations including arbitrary arrests, rapes and looting were reported in this period.

Amnesty International immediately and publicly voiced its concerns with regard to this decision to establish a state of siege, recalling that, under international law, some rights could not, under any circumstances, be derogated from, notably the right to life and the right not to be subjected to torture or other ill-treatment (see box, pp. 15-17) (5).

The declaration of a state of siege was condemned by the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, in a press release published on 13 February 2007. Similarly, on 16 February 2007, the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights also made an appeal, expressing its concerns at the situation in Guinea (6).

Information gathered by Amnesty International indicates that the great majority of demonstrators were protesting peacefully. However, the excessive use of force by members of the security forces at times caused a violent reaction from the population. For instance, on 10 February, a gendarme was lynched in Kankan. According to Amnesty International's information, the gendarme fled after firing on a number of demonstrators. The crowd captured him, placed a tyre around his neck and set fire to it. He was burned to death. Demonstrators also attacked public buildings in several towns in the interior of the country, burning down town halls and destroying prisons and court buildings, including those at Kankan and Mamou.

In light of the need to deal with the disturbances and demonstrations, President Conté asked the National Assembly to extend the state of siege, but it refused and the general strike was finally suspended on 27 February 2007, the day after the appointment of a new consensus Prime Minister, Lansana Kouyaté (7). A new government was appointed on 28 March 2007. It contained no members of political parties and was composed solely of people drawn from civil society.

The situation calmed down briefly but almost immediately, in May 2007, the new government had to confront angry members of the armed forces, who took to the streets, firing into the air. Civilians were killed and injured by stray bullets in Conakry and other Guinean towns. The soldiers were demanding payment of outstanding wages and succeeded in obtaining the dismissal of certain high-ranking members of the army.

Notes:

(1) A document from the Guinean Ministry of Public Health (Crisis Committee, Situation at 1 March 2007) reports 136 dead and 1,667 injured.

(2) The Guinean security forces violently suppressed, in particular, demonstrations organized during the December 1998 presidential elections, the local elections of June 2000, the 2001 referendum and, more recently, during the demonstrations of February and June 2006. See, in particular, Amnesty International, Guinea: Maintaining order with contempt for the right to life (AI Index: AFR 29/001/2002).

(3) Lansana Conté has been re-elected President of the Republic three times, after having made changes in 2001 to Guinea's constitution, which limited the Head of State's tenure to two terms of office.

(4) The trade unions were angry at the release by President Conté in mid-December 2006, of the former president of the employers' federation, Mamadou Sylla, who had been found guilty of misappropriation of public funds and imprisoned.

(5) See Amnesty International press release, Guinea: Fundamental freedoms must not be jeopardized by the state of siege (AI Index: AFR 29/002/2007).

(6) In an appeal on 16 February 2007, the African Commission declared itself to be "concerned about the martial law imposed by the government on 12 February 2007, which limits the enjoyment of many rights and freedoms enshrined in the African Charter, including the right to liberty and the security of the person (Article 6), the right to information and freedom of expression (Article 9), freedom of assembly (Article 11), and freedom of movement (Article 12). The African Commission would also like to recall that unlike other international human rights treaties, the African Charter does not allow for states to derogate from the rights and freedoms they are obliged to guarantee, which shall be observed even during emergency situations".

(7) Lansana Kouyaté was chosen by President Conté from the four "consensual" individuals put forward by the trade unions and by civil society. The new Prime Minister is a career diplomat who held the post of Under-Secretary General of the United Nations between 1994 and 1997.