Guinea: Government must investigate excessive use of force and internet restrictions

On Sunday 22 March 2020, the legislative election and referendum on a revision to the Constitution which would allow the President of Guinea to run for a third term, was marked by a crackdown by the security forces.

The crackdown resulted in at least 10 deaths, cuts to and limitations on the internet, the arrest of parliamentarians Alpha Ousmane Diallo and Fodé Marega, and members of the main opposition party Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea, (UFDG), as well as the arrest of civil society members.  Several acts of violence of violence were also observed.

ARTICLE 19 strongly condemns the excessive use of force leading to deaths and arrests of people who were expressing their opinion. The organization urges the government to investigate the allegations and unconditionally release those arrested solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.

“Guinea has a responsibility to protect the right to life and guarantee the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and access to information, including online,” said Fatou Jagne Senghore, Regional Director of ARTICLE 19 West Africa.

“It is unacceptable that Guinean citizens should pay with their lives because they simply exercised their right to protest. Internet restrictions are unacceptable in the digital age, especially on an election day and we strongly condemn the excessive use of force resulting in deaths. The internet blackouts and restrictions, the arrests and other violations against citizens run completely counter to the States responsibilities.

“Guinea has a responsibility to protect the right to life, and  guarantee the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and access to information, including online.

The Commissioner of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights expressed concerns about the situation and called on all parties to avoid violence. Similarly, the EU expressed concerns over the lack of credibility of the elections and excessive use of force by security forces and warned that it can lead to further communal violence. The USA likewise condemned the violence and called for an independent investigation.

Excessive use of force, deaths and arrests

Sunday 22 March, the day of the elections, was marked by high tensions in various cities of Guinea, including Conakry, Wanindara, Dubreka, Nzérékoré, Kindia, Labé, and Mamou, where citizens protested against the referendum.

The day before, shootings were heard in a military camp in Conakry. The government reacted by deploying army units including the Bataillon Spécial de la Présidence (BSP), Bataillon Autonome des Troupes aéroportées (BATA) and the Forces Spéciales Guinéennes (SF).

According to the coalition of nongovernmental groups and opposition parties FNDC, the security forces used excessive force, resulting in about ten people being killed. The Minister of Security and Civil Protection denied this and claimed that four people died of reasons not related to the security forces and two died in a traffic accident.

An unconfirmed number of people were arrested on Friday 20 and Saturday 21 March. Daouda Kante and Ibrahima Sory, FNDC officials in Pita and Boffa were arrested and later released according to our sources. The main opposition party UFDG condemned the arrest of Members of Parliament’s Alpha Ousmane Diallo and Fodé Marega.

The number of people who died in the aftermath of the elections could even be higher because violence occurred in the south of the country in Nzerekore. According to officially unconfirmed reports by local sources, more than a dozen of people were killed, others were injured, and a number of houses were burned.

“The authorities cannot ignore the reports by the FNDC and national and international media; they should immediately set up an independent investigation into these allegations of human rights violations and ensure that those suspected of human rights violations are brought to justice in a fair trial.” Insisted Fatou Jagne Senghore.

Internet censorship during election period

From Friday 20 March to Sunday 22 March 2020, Guinea experienced a social media blackout (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram) and a whatsapp restriction. Initially there was an internet cut on Friday night, followed by an intermittent internet shutdown on the voting day.

Fatou Jagne Senghore further deplored the arbitrary censorship, stating: “Access to the Internet is essential for the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, access to information and other rights in the digital age. It promotes transparency and public debate. Cutting off or slowing down access to the Internet, or parts of the Internet, to entire populations or segments of the public can never be justified for any reason, including on grounds of public order or national security”.

ARTICLE 19 stresses the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly may be subject to narrowly tailored limitations, providing they meet limitations of so called ‘three-part test’: a restriction must be prescribed by law; pursue a legitimate aim; and meet the strict tests of necessity and proportionality.

A pattern of repression

There is a pattern of silencing any discordant expression and violent repression of protests in the country. Ignoring the recommendations Guinea accepted during the 2015 Universal Periodic review on protecting the freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly, Guinea’s security authorities continued to ban protests and security forces to use excessive force for protestors repression.

In the frame of the constitution revision, there has been a crackdown on protests against the constitutional referendum which intensified since October 2019, which has resulted in a least death of thirty civilians and one gendarme, several persons injured, hundreds of people arrested and other violations. Already in July 2018, the government placed an almost complete ban on protests. This was followed with a Law voted by National Assembly on June 25th, 2019 that “could shield police from prosecution”, according to HRW by providing justifications to the police in the use of force.

In  October 2019, at least nine people were killed, nearly 100 wounded and several arrests were made following the crackdown on protests organised by 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 which called for a boycott of the referendum. In March 2020, a peaceful demonstration against the draft constitutional referendum was banned, a journalist was expulsed and two civil society activists were arrested.

National and international human rights obligations

Guinea’s 2010 Constitution guarantees the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. It guarantees the right to protest, but local authorities require demonstrators to notify them of any planned demonstration or public meeting, which can be prohibited if there is a threat to public order. Guinea also signed several international human rights treaties which guarantee the rights to life, freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly.

The law enforcement agencies must respect the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and international human rights laws and standards and refrain from any disproportionate or excessive use of force against demonstrators and fully comply with international standards relating to the use of force and firearms.

The Guidelines on Freedom of Association and Assembly in Africa stress that protest is a right, for which no prior authorization should be needed. Lack of prior notification does not make an assembly unlawful and should not be the sole reason for dispersal.

The African Commission Guidelines for the Policing of Assemblies by Law Enforcement Officials in Africa set out the principles security forces should follow during protests. They define the primary role of law enforcement officials during protests “to ensure the safety of the public and to safeguard the human rights of all persons”.

The dispersal of any assembly should only ever be used as a measure of last resort and in exceptional circumstances; force should never be used against a peaceful assembly. The police should prioritise facilitation and avoid the need to resort to force, even if the assembly is considered unlawful. Arrest or detention is arbitrary if it is a response to the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.

Any use of force by authorities against an assembly, whether peaceful or violent, must comply with the UN Basic Principles on the use of Force and Firearms and the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the Guidelines on Freedom of Association and Assembly in Africa.                                                                                                                                   

Recommendations

  • ARTICLE 19 makes an urgent appeal to the Guinean authorities to:
  • To urgently carry out an independent and transparent investigation into the operations by the security forces before, during and after the election and referendum, with a view to bringing the suspected perpetrators to justice. The report must be made public.
  • Unconditionally release those arrested solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly since October 2019 and drop all charges against all the activists currently being prosecuted, including Koundouno and Ibrahima Diallo and other members of the FNDC.
  • Ensure that the authorities as well as the security forces comply with the Constitution and Guinea’s international human rights obligations and guarantee the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and access to information, including access to the internet.
  • ARTICLE 19 calls on the country’s authorities, political actors and civil society to mobilize and engage in dialogue to curb the violence and crisis caused by the constitutional referendum and create suitable conditions to protect, respect and fulfil the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in Guinea.
  • ARTICLE 19 urges the international human rights bodies to put pressure on the Government to set up an independent commission to investigate allegations of human rights violations in the context of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in Guinea with a view to bring those suspected to be responsible to justice in a fair trial and provide a remedy to the victims or their family, as well as to seek regional and international assistance and advice in the conduct of these investigations and any subsequent prosecutions.

 

For more information, please contact

Eliane NYOBE, Senior Programme Assistant, ARTICLE 19 West Africa at [email protected],

Tel : +221 33 869 03 22

Tw: @article19wafric

In 2010, ARTICLE 19 published a report on the violent repression in Guinea which can be found here.

 

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