Security forces violently crack down on opposition during referendum in Guinea

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Guinea’s security forces violently cracked down on opposition supporters in the lead up to and during the March 22, 2020 constitutional referendum and legislative elections, Human Rights Watch said on Friday..

Security forces have killed at least eight people, including two children, and wounded over 20 others. Since mid-February, security forces have also arrested scores of suspected opposition supporters, and forcibly disappeared at least 40. Government officials said protesters injured at least nine members of the security forces, vandalized polling stations, burned election materials, and threatened voters on election day. On March 22, armed soldiers, gendarmes, and police officers in pickup vehicles and on foot deployed across Guinea’s capital, Conakry, fired teargas and live rounds on protesters, killing at least six people, including one woman, and injuring at least eight men.

“Guinean security forces have confronted popular protests with brutal violence,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “With protests likely to continue in the lead-up to elections, the Guinean government should immediately rein in the security forces, and opposition leaders should do what they can to help stop abuses.”

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At the heart of the protests is President Alpha Condé’s perceived plan to run for a third presidential term in elections scheduled for later in 2020. In December 2019, Condé, 81, released the text for the proposed new constitution, which his supporters and opponents said would pave the way for his third term agenda. A coalition of civil society groups, labor unions, and political parties has organized regular protests since mid-2019 and boycotted the referendum. On March 27, 2020, Guinea’s electoral commission announced that the proposed new constitution passed with over 90 percent of the vote.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 60 victims, family members, and witnesses, as well as 15 medical workers, journalists, lawyers, opposition party members, and civil society representatives. Human Rights Watch analyzed photographs and video footage to corroborate victim and witness accounts. Human Rights Watch contacted Albert Damatang Camara, the security and civilian protection minister, by phone and WhatsApp and shared its findings via email on March 23, requesting responses to specific questions. Camara has not replied.

Several witnesses said that on March 22, security forces were at times accompanied by persons in plain clothes wielding knives and machetes who attacked protesters, killing at least one young man, Diallo Nassouralaye. Some opposition supporters threw stones and other projectiles at security forces. Violence also erupted outside the capital, including in Kindia, northeast of Conakry; Kolaboui; and Sangaredi, in the west; and N’zérékoré, in southeastern Guinea.

A witness said that a gendarme shot Issa Yero Diallo, a 28-year-old woman in Conakry’s Ansoumanyah Plateau neighborhood at close range: “The gendarme threatened the woman before shooting her. People around tried to dissuade him, but he shot her in the neck.” Residents said the woman was targeted because she had helped negotiate the release of a man whom gendarmes arrested earlier that day. Minister Camara told the media the following day that a gendarme suspected of killing the woman had been arrested.

Security forces killed two teenage boys, one on February 20 and one on March 5, and on March 6 arrested two prominent opposition members in Conakry. On February 11 and 12, security forces arbitrarily arrested 40 people, including at least two children and three men with intellectual disabilities, during raids in Conakry and took them to a military base about 700 kilometers away in Soronkoni, in eastern Guinea. They were held without any contact with the outside world and without the authorities acknowledging their detention until March 28, when the authorities released 36 and transferred 4 others to Conakry central prison where they remain.

Minister Camara said in a news release on March 22 that the referendum “took place in peaceful conditions throughout the territory,” but that “certain activists have tried to sow terror” in Conakry and other cities and towns.” In a media interview on March 31, he confirmed that six people died in Conakry on March 22, including one due to stroke, and said that the authorities had opened investigations.

With more protests expected in the lead-up to elections later this year, Guinean authorities should instruct security forces to exercise restraint and abide by the Guidelines for the Policing of Assemblies by Law Enforcement Officials in Africa of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), and the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. Under these principles, law enforcement officers may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required to achieve a legitimate policing objective.

The ACHPR, the Special Representative of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the European UnionFrance, and the United States all condemned or expressed concern about violence around the referendum. On March 4, the ACHPR special rapporteur for Guinea called on the government to comply with the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and to ensure free, fair, and transparent elections. In a February 11 resolution, the European Parliament expressed concern over the rising political tensions and violence in Guinea.

Guinea’s international partners and other institutions, particularly the African Union, ECOWAS, the UN Security Council, the EU, and the US should increase pressure on President Condé and his government and press for credible investigations and prosecutions of recent violations, Human Rights Watch said.

If Guinean authorities fail to address these human rights concerns, the US should consider imposing targeted sanctions against senior Guinean officials responsible for ongoing human rights abuses, including travel bans and asset freezes.

The EU and its member states should consider the existing sanctions regime on Guinea and remind Guinea’s authorities of the consequences for failure to address serious human rights concerns.

“Strong action is needed now before the situation deteriorates further and disproportionate force is used against protesters in the lead-up to elections,” Allegrozzi said. “Guinea’s partners should signal clearly that there will be consequences for firing on protesters or disappearing opposition supporters.”

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