Guinea: rights abuses under martial law

From Human Rights Watch via Reuters, Feb. 16:

Dakar — The Guinean government has failed to control security forces responsible for rapes, robberies and more than 110 killings since mid-January, Human Rights Watch said today. After the imposition of martial law on February 12, security forces committed numerous abuses during house-to-house searches for weapons earlier seized by a small group of violent protesters from police stations and other government installations. “Guinean security forces are using martial law as an excuse to terrorize ordinary Guineans,” said Peter Takirambudde, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Under the guise of reestablishing law and order, they’re acting like common criminals, beating, robbing and brutalizing the population they’re supposed to protect.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed numerous witnesses in Conakry’s outlying suburbs who report that in the last several days, security forces—particularly the presidential guard—went house-to-house, breaking down doors, and looting everything of value inside, including cell phones, cameras, and money. In conducting these searches, members of the security forces have seriously beaten individuals with clubs and rifle butts, and have even shot and wounded individuals protesting the theft of their household goods. The terror caused by the security forces has succeeded in frightening most families in Conakry, particularly in the suburbs, into staying locked inside their homes.

The security forces have been responsible for at least 22 killings in the past five days. According to a witness interviewed by Human Rights Watch, presidential guardsmen fired into a group of people outside a mosque in Conakry’s outer suburbs, killing a man in his 60s. Other credible sources report that at least three women living within Conakry’s suburbs have been raped in the last four days by uniformed personnel, including soldiers and presidential guardsmen. At least one victim was reportedly gang-raped.

“The government’s response to economic protests has become increasingly deadly, culminating in the bloodbath we’ve witnessed this month,” said Takirambudde. “It’s imperative the Guinean government rein in the security forces, and investigate and hold to account those responsible for recent abuses.”

The current crisis began after labor unions declared a nationwide strike in early January to protest against deteriorating economic conditions, including rampant inflation and corruption. According to witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, nearly all those killed have been shot by members of the security forces including the presidential guard, police, and gendarmes. The unrest subsided for several days after ailing President Lansana Conte agreed to appoint a consensus prime minister. However, Conte’s February 9 appointment of a close ally as prime minister resulted in another wave of protests and the subsequent declaration of martial law.

Over the weekend, protestors across the country—angered by the nomination of the new prime minister—attacked government installations, burned the private homes of government and military officials, looted guns from police stations, blocked roads, attacked cars and passersby, and engaged in running gun battles with security forces.

The martial law decree, issued by Conte on February 12, bans all demonstrations and meetings, and imposes severe restrictions of movement on the population. It also authorizes the military to detain or put under house arrest anyone deemed to present a danger to public security; to conduct searches of private property and monitor all means of communication without a warrant; and to exercise draconian restrictions on the media. Prior to the decree, the military had already forcibly entered one private radio station, broken its equipment, and arrested some of its employees.

Human Rights Watch called on the government to ensure that the security forces respect Guinea’s obligations under international human rights law and take appropriate action against perpetrators of abuses. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Guinea ratified in 1978, permits some restrictions on rights during an officially proclaimed public emergency that threatens the life of the nation. According to the Human Rights Committee, the expert body that monitors compliance with the ICCPR, any derogation of rights during a public emergency must be of an exceptional and temporary nature, and must be “limited to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” Certain fundamental rights, such as the right to life and the right to be secure from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, must always be respected.

Human Rights Watch also called on the Guinean security forces to abide by the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials in policing demonstrations. The principles state that law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, apply nonviolent means as far as possible before resorting to the use of force. Whenever the lawful use of force is unavoidable, law enforcement officials must use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense.

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