Nairobi — Guinea's government should end its crackdown on the right to protest by releasing civil society leaders and demonstrators opposed to a new constitution, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should also investigate the killings of protesters and one gendarme during three days of demonstrations which began October 14, 2019 in the capital, Conakry, and in towns in Guinea's interior.
Guinea's government has effectively banned street protests for over a year, citing threats to public security. But its crackdown on the right to protest has escalated in the last week as security forces arrested activists leading the opposition to a new constitution and used excessive force to break up nationwide protests, with the government acknowledging nine deaths, including a gendarme.
"Guinea's government simply should not be denying people their right to express opposition to a new constitution," said Corinne Dufka, West Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "A blanket protest ban, the arbitrary arrest of civil society leaders, and the violent dispersal of demonstrators shows that the government is prepared to trample on human rights to suppress dissent."
Guinea is in political limbo as it awaits an announcement from President Alpha Condé about whether he will attempt to change the constitution to allow him to run for a third term in the 2020 presidential elections. President Condé has not said whether he intends to run again, but on October 9 his government completed consultations on the need for a new constitution.
The National Front for the Defense of the Constitution (Le Front national de la défense de la Constitution, FNDC) - a coalition of nongovernmental groups and opposition parties that boycotted the consultation process - announced on October 7 nationwide demonstrations to begin on October 14. General Bourema Condé, the minister for territorial administration and decentralization, said on October 9 that the FNDC's declaration "constitutes an open threat to the peace and security of our nation."
On October 12, security forces arrested seven members of the FNDC leadership, including its coordinator, Abdourahmane Sanoh, during a meeting at Sanoh's home. The detained FNDC members also included Sekou Koundouno, the FNDC's head of planning, Ibrahima Diallo, operations chief, and Abdoulaye Oumou Sow, head of digital communications. Sanoh's brother, Mamadou, was also later arrested.
A lawyer for those arrested told Human Rights Watch they were able to meet the detained men briefly on October 12 at police headquarters, but did not have access to them after they were moved to the barracks of the elite security force unit the Mobile Intervention and Security Force (Compagnie mobile d'intervention et de sécurité, CMIS) and the headquarters of Guinea's intelligence services. The men were brought before a court on October 14 and imprisoned in Guinea's central prison. On October 16, they were taken to a court to face trial for public order offenses. The trial was adjourned to October 18.
Despite the arrest of the FNDC leadership, widespread protests against a new constitution began on October 14 in Conakry and other towns. Journalists and witnesses reported an extensive deployment of police and gendarmes to break up protests, including by using water cannons and tear gas.
There were frequent clashes between protesters and the security forces in Conakry and in Guinea's interior, with witnesses alleging that the security forces at times fired live ammunition toward protesters. Witnesses said protesters frequently threw stones and other projectiles at security force members.
Social media footage from October 15 showed police officers using batons to beat two protesters and, in one case, parading him naked while pretending to slit his throat. Human Rights Watch has documented at length the police and gendarmes use of firearms and excessive use of lethal force when policing past protests, as well as the beating of protesters, corruption, and other forms of criminality.
Guinea's government justified the ban on this week's protests on the grounds that the FNDC leadership did not notify the government of the demonstrations. President Condé on October 14 said he was committed to the right to protest, but that organizers must "inform and involve" the authorities so that "an itinerary is defined and appropriate security measures are taken to secure the demonstration."
Such statements, however, ignore the reality that since July 2018, government officials have systematically prohibited all protests for which they received prior notification. Instead of working with the FNDC and other nongovernmental or opposition groups to facilitate the right to protest, security forces have over the past year arrested those who defy protest bans and used tear gas to disperse demonstrators.
Protests continued on October 15 and 16, with the and 70 others had gunshot wounds. Government statements have confirmed at least 9 dead but denied that police and gendarmes carried firearms to protests. The FNDC said that security forces arrested and detained more than 200 demonstrators.
Human Rights Watch recommended in April that the government should establish a special judicial unit to investigate deaths during protests. Members of the security forces are virtually never investigated or prosecuted for their alleged role in protest deaths.
"The Guinean government's brutal suppression of protests and the near-total impunity for security forces abuses is a recipe for a worrying deterioration in human rights," Dufka said. "Instead of arresting civil society leaders, the government should be investigating the worrying allegations of violence, including by the security forces, and sanctioning those responsible."