The government of Guinea has effectively banned street protests for more than a year, citing threats to public security, Human Rights Watch said today. Local authorities have prohibited at least 20 political or other demonstrations. Security forces have tear gassed those who defy the ban, and arrested dozens of demonstrators.
Guinea is in political limbo as it awaits an announcement from President Alpha Condé about whether he will revise the constitution and run for a third term in 2020 presidential elections. A coalition of opposition parties and civil society organizations have said it will use "all legal means" to oppose any constitutional change.
"With Guinea in the midst of a fierce political debate, it is more important than ever to protect the right to peacefully demonstrate," said Corinne Dufka, West Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Banning protests denies political parties and other groups a legitimate way to express their opposition to, or support for, the government's plans and policies."
In June and August 2019, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 40 people about the authorities' response to protests, including governing party and opposition politicians, members of the National Front for the Defense of the Constitution (Le Front national de la défense de la Constitution, FNDC) - the coalition of opposition parties and nongovernmental groups opposed to any constitutional revision - lawyers, journalists, human rights groups, and diplomats. Human Rights Watch conducted interviews in Conakry in person and by phone or through secure communication channels in Guinea's interior.
Guinea's ruling party, the Rally of the Guinean People Party (Rassemblement du Peuple Guinéen, RPG), has publicly called for a new constitution that, Condé's supporters say, would allow for a third presidential term. Condé himself has not said whether he intends to run again, but on September 4 instructed his ministers to undertake "consultations" on a new constitution. The opposition coalition has promised to take to the streets if Condé does push for a new text. "We're in the calm before the storm," one Conakry-based diplomat told Human Rights Watch.
Guinean law protects the right to protest but requires demonstrators to notify the local authorities ahead of a proposed march or public meeting. The local authorities can prohibit a planned protest only if there is "a real threat to public order."
Since July 2018, however, opposition parties and the FNDC have accused the government of instructing local authorities to prohibit all protests. They said that none of their protests have been authorized in this period and showed Human Rights Watch examples of 20 letters they said they received from local authorities prohibiting protests.
Members of the ruling party also cited examples of their own demonstrations that local authorities had prohibited, although FDNC leaders noted that government ministers and officials were able to organize events to promote a new constitution without interference.
Human Rights Watch documented at least four occasions in 2019 when the security forces arrested demonstrators opposed to a new constitution or broke up protests that were held despite the ban. "We wanted to hold a meeting, not to do anything violent," said an FNDC member who was arrested on June 13 in N'Zérékoré. "I was handcuffed, put in a pick-up truck, taken to the police station, stripped, and put in a cell."
Guinea's Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralization, which Guinean human rights groups said ordered the protest ban in July 2018, did not respond to a September 13 letter from Human Rights Watch.
Other government officials, however, said that a ban on protests is necessary to protect public safety. Many demonstrations in Guinea in the last few years have resulted in violence, with protesters throwing stones and other projectiles, and the security forces using teargas, water cannons, and, at times, firearms.
"Protests are prohibited at the moment across the whole country," said Souleymane Keita, an adviser to President Condé and RPG spokesman. "Each time there are demonstrations, there's deaths. The most important role of the state is to protect people." Since Condé came to power in 2010, dozens of protesters have been shot dead by the security forces, and several members of the police and gendarmerie have been killed by violent demonstrators.
A blanket ban on protests is not, however, a proportionate response to the risk of violence during protests, Human Rights Watch said. And it is not likely to deter opposition demonstrators from taking to the streets if Condé does push for a third term.
Guinea's government should instead work with political parties and other groups to develop public criteria to guide local authorities in determining whether protests should go ahead. The criteria should include a process for evaluating the security threat posed by a planned protest.
All decisions prohibiting protests should be subject to independent judicial review. Action to prevent and end violence during demonstrations should be proportionate, respecting the fundamental right to free assembly.
"The right to peaceful protest is a fundamental pillar of democratic governance and a key tool for shaping public policies and debates," Dufka said. "The Guinean government should act quickly to find a way to respect the right to protest while protecting public safety."
Violent Protests and Response
Street protests have long been used in Guinea to express opposition to government policies. In 2006 and 2007, trade unions and other groups organized nationwide strikes against poor governance and economic deterioration under the then-president, Lansana Conté. Security forces on multiple occasions fired at unarmed protesters, leaving scores dead. In 2009, opposition parties and other groups organized a peaceful protest against an attempt by the then-president and junta leader, Dadis Camara, to run in presidential elections. Security forces again opened fire on protesters, killing more than 150.
After coming to power following the 2010 elections, President Condé's government significantly improved respect for freedom of assembly and the professionalization of the security forces, notably by ensuring that gendarmes and police, not the army, carried out security operations. A 2015 law on the maintenance of public order also improved civilian oversight of the response of the security forces to demonstrations.
Until this year's crackdown on protests, local authorities typically allowed some opposition protests to proceed while prohibiting demonstrations during periods of high political tension or where there was disagreement over the proposed route.
Many of the protests that have occurred since Condé came to power, however, have led to violence between members of the security forces and protesters, or between government and opposition supporters. Dozens of demonstrators and two law enforcement officers were killed from 2012-2013 in advance of parliamentary elections. At least 12 people were killed and scores injured prior to and following presidential elections in 2015. Human Rights Watch has documented at length the excessive use of force, arbitrary arrests, and criminality in the response to protests by the police and gendarmerie.
Despite the risk of violence during protests, however, banning them outright violates human rights law. Blanket bans prevent an assessment of whether, depending on the circumstances, a specific protest could go ahead. Individual protests should be banned only if no other less intrusive response would achieve the legitimate aim, such as the maintenance of public safety.
Guinea's current demonstration ban began in July 2018, as the government faced a series of protests by opposition political parties, civil society groups, and unions over allegedly fraudulent local elections, a fuel price increase, and the government's failure to resolve a longstanding teachers' strike. Many of these protests resulted in incidents of violence between the protesters and the security forces.
Two Guinean human rights groups, which on July 18 filed a Supreme Court complaint contesting a protest ban, allege that on July 23, 2018, General Bourema Condé, the minister for territorial administration and decentralization, sent a communiqué to local authorities instructing them to prohibit street protests until otherwise notified. Local authorities referred to this order in three of the letters sent to opposition parties or the FNDC coalition prohibiting protests, including a letter sent as recently as June 12. Condé did not respond to a letter from Human Rights Watch asking him to confirm that he issued the order and whether it was still in effect.
When government opponents have defied protest bans to oppose a new constitution or have not notified the authorities of a planned protest, Guinean security forces have, on at least four occasions in 2019, responded by firing tear gas to disperse demonstrators or by arresting protesters.
On March 31, security forces arrested several activists in Coyah who held placards that read, "no to a third term." They were released after several days without charge.
On April 5, more than a dozen members of the Liberal Block ("Bloc Liberal") political party, including its leader, Faya Millimono, were arrested in Conakry for organizing a sit-in to protest the extension of the term of the National Assembly beyond the five-year limit set in the constitution. The protesters, about 20 people by a participant's estimate, held a banner that stated, "If you slip, he will slip and Guinea will fall," a reference to a potential third term for President Condé.
"We hadn't notified the local authorities as we didn't think we needed to for a simple sit-in," said one of the activists who was arrested. "Policemen fired teargas towards us. Some people fled, but others, like me, were suffocating and so we just sat down. We were arrested but released that evening." The activist said that before her release a Guinean judge told her that if she participated in future demonstrations she would be detained. "Since then, I don't dare participate in political activities," she said.
The Guidelines on Freedom of Association and Assembly in Africa, issued by the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, state that protesters should not be dispersed or face criminal sanctions simply because they did not notify the authorities. Demonstrations should only be dispersed if strictly necessary to protect public safety.
On May 4, security forces arrested seven FNDC supporters during a visit by President Condé to Kindia. The city's mayor had, on May 2, prohibited a demonstration by the group scheduled for May 4 as the organizers proposed holding it in the stadium where Condé was to speak. At that point, human rights guidelines suggest that the local authorities and the FNDC leadership should have worked quickly to identify an acceptable alternative site for the protest. Instead, on May 4, the protesters sought to march toward the stadium. Gendarmes blocked their route and so the demonstration continued in Kindia's city center, where security forces arrested a handful of participants.
Several other FNDC supporters in Kindia, who were not participating in the protest, were arrested while attempting to enter the stadium where Condé was speaking. They allege that they were arbitrarily arrested for wearing opposition T-shirts. "I was wearing a pro-FNDC t-shirt," said Boubacar Barry, one of those detained. "And I saw another person denied entry and detained for wearing a shirt with Cellou Dalein [an opposition leader]." Another man said he was arrested for wearing a T-shirt showing Sidya Touré, another opposition leader.
All those arrested in Kindia on May 4 were tried and convicted of public order offenses on May 7, receiving sentences of three months in prison and a fine of 500,000 FG (US$54). The verdict was overturned on May 13 on appeal, and the protesters were released. The presiding judge reportedly also ordered the return of the opposition T-shirts confiscated during the arrests.
On June 11, N'Zérékoré's mayor prohibited a coalition demonstration scheduled for June 13, citing the need to preserve public order and "the decision of his supervising ministry [the Ministry for Territorial Administration and Decentralization] to prohibit all marches." FNDC leaders told Human Rights Watch that, with a public march prohibited, they decided to hold a meeting at the headquarters of an opposition political party. Social media images show coalition supporters with placards reading, "No to a third term in N'Zérékoré."
The local authorities accused the FNDC of ignoring the earlier prohibition on public marches and sent the security forces to break up the meeting. Several witnesses said that the security forces fired tear gas into the crowd while demonstrators threw stones in response.
Throughout June 13, clashes between the security forces and the protesters led to violence between pro-opposition and pro-government supporters in neighborhoods in N'Zérékore, with one person killed and more than two dozen injured. Shops and homes were pillaged or destroyed because they were owned by members of ethnic groups perceived as loyal to the attackers' opponents.
Security forces arrested at least 40 people in N'Zérékoré following the dispersal of the FNDC meeting and the violence that followed in the town. They were held in detention until June 20, when they were tried at a first instance court in N'Zérékoré. Twenty-two people were convicted of various public order offences, each receiving suspended three or four month-prison sentences and a 500,000 GF ($54) fine. The remaining detainees were released without charge.
Clashes between opposition and pro-government supporters in Kankan on April 30 also led to several injuries. Three witnesses from the FNDC told Human Rights Watch that government supporters attacked a coalition gathering at a local party's headquarters after the local authorities prohibited a public march. Governing party activists said, however, that FNDC supporters had initiated the violence. The FNDC said that one person injured in those clashes, Mory Kourouma, died on June 19 from his injuries.
Recommendations to the Guinean Government
To ensure respect for freedom of assembly, the Guinean government should:
Reaffirm the basic right of everyone to free assembly and state publicly that there is no blanket ban on demonstrations and that prohibitions on protests will, consistent with Guinean law, be evaluated by local authorities on a case-by-case basis.
Convene a working group, consisting of representatives of political parties, nongovernmental groups, and international experts, to develop criteria, consistent with human rights law, to guide local authorities in evaluating whether any restrictions are needed on any specific protest. The government should publish these criteria and provide training for local authorities on how to apply them. The working group should then meet every six months to monitor whether the criteria are being effectively applied.
If the security risks of a protest are higher than usual, organize meetings between local authorities, the organizers of demonstrations, and the security forces to discuss a workable security plan, including the route to be taken. Only if no workable security arrangements can be found, and the risk of serious harm to others is high, should a protest be prohibited.
In conjunction with the judiciary, create an expedited process for hearing court appeals over prohibited protests, allowing for a decision as close to the planned protest date as possible.
Ensure that anyone arrested during a protest receives due process and is brought expeditiously before a court of law.
Issue detailed guidance for prosecutors, police, and gendarmes, consistent with human rights law, regarding when those arrested during protests should be charged with criminal offenses, and outline the types of charges that are appropriate and in what circumstances.
Do not automatically treat the organizers of demonstrations as being criminally responsible for violence and other crimes that may occur during the demonstrations, unless there is clear evidence they were directly responsible.
Refrain from any language, online or in the media, that could incite violence during protests. Opposition political parties and other groups, including the FNDC, should also refrain from similar language.