“This simply doesn’t happen in Guinea,” a civilian in the capital, Conakry, said of the 8th February decision by judges to charge a top army official for alleged involvement in crimes against civilians. Guineans and rights experts say the move is an opening up to the rule of law, but the country must overcome forces that have long fed impunity.
The three judges investigating the 28 September 2009 brutal crackdown by security forces have filed charges against Col Moussa Tiégboro Camara (henceforth Tiégboro), then and now head of the national agency to fight drug-trafficking and organized crime.
Tiégboro is one of three people an international inquiry commission named in a December 2009 report as probably criminally responsible for the assault in which hundreds of people were killed, raped or injured. The two others cited by the inquiry commission are former junta leader Moussa Dadis Camara and Aboubacar Chérif Diakité, known as ‘Toumba’, who was chief of the presidential guard at the time.
Human Rights Watch estimates 150-200 people were killed, and dozens of women raped, when security forces attacked a pro-democracy rally at the stadium in Conakry on 28 September 2009.
The brutality of the September 2009 incident shocked the nation, but Guineans have long been used to grave violations by security forces, and they have seen promises of accountability come and go. Today, with the charges against Tiégboro and a few other separate cases in which officials have been called before a judge, people say they are hopeful but wary.
Amsaou Diallo, president of a national victims’ association, said the judges' move to charge Tiégboro was momentous precisely because victims have been voiceless against the powerful for so long. “These judges dared,” she told IRIN. “We are talking about people who are untouchable, and this time the judges really dared.”
Those judges and the victims must be protected, she said. “Many victims have yet to testify so we’ve got a lot of work ahead and protection must be in place so the process does not get derailed.”
Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the case is a huge challenge for the government. “For decades, the institutions responsible for the protection of citizens - the police, gendarmerie, military - have been the very perpetrators of abuses… The government must fulfil its responsibility to ensure the protection of witnesses, victims, judges and human rights defenders associated with this case.”
Guinea’s international partners should use this as an opportunity to help set up a witness protection programme, she said.
Politics and justice
Aly Fancinadouno, a Conakry doctor who has worked closely with 28 September victims, said it remains to be seen whether politics will stay out of the judicial process. “Will this be like past scenarios when those in power influenced the judiciary? We don’t know.”
Pointing out that Tiégboro and others must be seen as innocent until proven guilty, he said: “The charges against him show that the work launched after 28 September is getting somewhere. If those in power don’t interfere, the judicial process could be carried out.”
Political considerations could figure, at least in the short term, said Vincent Foucher, an analyst with the International Crisis Group in West Africa. “Politics could get in the way of bringing charges against Dadis Camara. He is significant politically for Guinea’s Forest Region, and [President Alpha] Condé might fear that allowing justice to go after Camara [Dadis] might cost the support of voters in that region ahead of the much-delayed legislative elections... That's not the case for Tiégboro.”
Foucher said whatever the political considerations of charging only Tiégboro for now, the judges’ decision is “excellent news” for Guinea. “What counts is that someone who is suspected of very grave crimes has had to come before a judge. This is a huge victory… It says to any soldier or police officer, `one day you could see real consequences for any wrongdoings’. That is the beginning of what we call rule of law.”
And what it says to Guinean citizens, and all West Africans, according to Dufka, is that they can shift their expectations. “There is a culture of low expectations on the part of the people - they just expect the powerful to get away with abuses,” she said. “The charges against Tiégboro come after the indictment and trials against [former Liberian president] Charles Taylor and [former Ivoirian president] Laurent Gbagbo; of course Tiégboro is not at that level, but the dynamic was the same - that the politically powerful and connected are above the law.”
The shift has already begun. “With charges having been filed against Tiégboro, I will be more self-confident around members of the military, free of fear,” sociologist Ibrahima Kalil Bamba told IRIN. “What happens is the image of soldiers becomes increasingly demystified.”
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
|Controversial junta leader, Captain Moussa Dadis Camara was also cited as being probably criminally responsible for the 28 September killings (file photo)|
Rights groups and Guineans are watching for further indicators that the shift towards rule of law is real - removing Tiégboro from his current government job, for starters. He has been charged, but retains his post. “Putting him on administrative leave would send an official signal that the government is squarely behind this process and believes in the seriousness of the process and the charges,” Dufka said.
Rights experts have noted that the investigation into 28 September has been relatively well resourced by the government. But Guinea’s notoriously weak justice system needs an overhaul if the rule of law is to take hold beyond this case which has the world’s attention.
Guinean law is not up to the international conventions the country has ratified, and there is a grave lack of lawyers and magistrates, said Foromo Frédéric Loua, lawyer and president of the Guinean NGO Mêmes Droits pour Tous. He said Guinea has about 200 lawyers for a population of 12 million.
Justice or peace?
Loua said he is concerned that Guinea’s truth and reconciliation commission could disrupt the judicial process. “What politicians want is calm and order, so they want to avoid anything that could spark trouble… It’s difficult to talk about reconciliation while at the same time having people charged or convicted. These two things can seem contradictory, so the commission could be tempted to call for amnesty.”
President Alpha Condé set up a truth and reconciliation commission in early 2011 to collect people’s testimony of ethnic and political violence.
Mamadou Taran Diallo, a civil society activist who works on governance and transparency issues, said Guineans must not let longstanding ethnic tensions cloud their view of the judicial process. “Success in establishing rule of law needs all Guineans - government and citizens alike,” he told IRIN. “We must all avoid making this an issue of politics or ethnicity or a settling of scores. It must be seen for what it is - strictly a judicial matter in which people suspected of crimes are brought before a judge.
Some Guineans say they see the judges’ decision to charge Tiégboro simply as a move to prevent the case going to the International Criminal Court (ICC). A UN panel investigating the 28 September massacre said the same three named individuals should be referred to the ICC.
The ICC, which has analysed the 28 September case, can open an investigation into serious crimes if member countries are unable or unwilling to do so.
“Detractors should not lose sight of three things,” Dufka told IRIN. “The ICC is a court of last resort; a trial in Guinea would more directly and meaningfully send a message to would-be perpetrators that such crimes will not be tolerated; and a trial in Guinea could serve to simultaneously strengthen the judiciary and provide needed relief to the victims.”