Three years after a stadium massacre in the Guinean capital Conakry in which hundreds of people were killed, injured and raped during a military crackdown on a rally to protest against the presidential candidacy of coup leader Moussa Dadis Camara, there are indications that impunity may be coming to an end.
Following an assassination attempt in December 2009, Camara exited office, paving the way for the country’s first credible democratic election which voted President Alpha Condé into power in December 2010. Since then, repeated delays in setting a date for parliamentary elections have caused tension to mount in the capital, with clashes breaking out between opposition and government supporters on 21 September.
After the massacre, violence continued. Guinean youth Thierno Ousmane Diallo is among several men allegedly tortured by gendarmes in 2010 following unrest linked to a heated presidential election campaign.
This year international and national human rights groups filed complaints about the case as well as a 2007 violent crackdown by security forces on demonstrators. In May 2012 Guinean judges made indictments in the 2010 torture case, allowing criminal investigations to be opened.
The May indictments are part of a series of legal moves Guineans say were “unthinkable” only a couple of years ago.
Diallo says these days when he hears certain security officials on the radio, he has noticed a slight change in tone. “I hear an ever-so-slight difference,” he says. “They don’t sound quite as brazen as before.”
The difference he is picking up might be part of what many Guineans say are the rumblings of a transformation in the fight for the rule of law.
On 13 September 2012 another official, Col Abdoulaye Chérif Diaby, was indicted over the stadium attack. The two are among several people named by a UN commission of inquiry as possibly criminally liable.
“The legal actions we’ve seen against some security officials - many of them regarded as untouchable - have put a germ of doubt in the minds of people who might have in the past carried out abuses without a second thought,” said Hassane II Diallo, a magistrate in Conakry who heads a programme on judicial reform at the Justice Ministry.
In 54 years of independence Guinea has seen countless cases of torture, rape and other violations by security forces with no legal consequences. The very fact that Guinean judges have brought charges is remarkable, say Guineans.
Mamadou Alpha Barry, communications officer at the Gendarmerie, told IRIN: “I can’t comment on the fight against impunity. It’s the justice department that deals with it. I can only talk about security… Reforms are under way in the security forces. We are working with the population and relations between security forces and the population are much better.”
“Germ of doubt”
If the indictments against former and current officials plant a “germ of doubt” in the minds of security forces, they also encourage victims and steel their determination to go after their assailants, people injured in the stadium attack and other events told IRIN.
“Fear has switched sides,” said Aliou Barry, president of Guinean human rights watchdog ONDH, who was severely beaten by soldiers in election-related violence in 2010. “The authorities are clearly now aware that justice could actually be rendered in Guinea.
“I was astounded that a Guinean judge would even hear us out,” he said. “This was unheard of here.” He said legal progress has encouraged victims not to be manipulated by offers of money for silence; it used to be that families would automatically take that up, seeing no use in the judicial route.
One woman who preferred anonymity showed IRIN scars on her arms and legs where, she said, soldiers attacked her with knives as they raped her in the stadium on 28 September 2009. She said she is determined to continue testifying and doing whatever she must.
“My most fervent desire is to see my rapists behind bars,” she told IRIN. “I am fighting to restore my dignity.”
No one says victims are no longer fearful or that security forces no longer carry out abuses. Torture victim Diallo, since charges were brought in that case, regularly receives threats in person and on the telephone. Some indicted officials, like Camara, retain their positions in government.
Guinea has yet to put in place a mechanism to protect victims and witnesses, said Louis-Marie Bouaka, head of the UN High Commission for Human Rights in Guinea.
“The Guinean judiciary will not change overnight,” said the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) in a recent report. “But a different climate seems to be prevailing” in the judiciary, the executive and civil society.
FIDH is working alongside Guinean human rights groups and has filed complaints on behalf of victims of torture and other violations.
Magistrate Diallo says “only in Guinea” would indictments and the opening of criminal investigations be seen as remarkable.
“We’re coming from so far behind - the bar is so low,” he said. “These moves are far from sufficient. No one can know how serious the authorities are about this until we see concrete acts to follow these indictments.”
Foromo Frédéric Loua, a lawyer and president of the Guinean legal NGO Mêmes Droits pour Tous (Equal Rights for All), says for him the indictments do not stand for much. “Nothing has been done officially to truly go after those who have violated human rights. Much remains to be done. And the violations continue.”
Indeed many Guineans say citizens continue to face abuses by police and gendarmes. They do not perceive a change in the climate, or progress in the fight against impunity. IRIN spoke with the families of two young men who were shot dead during unrest on 21 and 22 September - the families say by gendarmes.
Tough work lies ahead for a judicial sector severely lacking in human and material resources.
It was only in August 2012 that the Guinean judges investigating the 28 September 2009 attack received materials such as computers and other equipment to carry out their work.
The portion of the national budget allocated to the judiciary is 0.29 percent, according to magistrate Diallo.
"The judiciary continues to be grossly underfunded,” said Corinne Dufka, senior Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), which has done extensive research on impunity in Guinea. “In order to have progress on the rule of law you have to properly fund, train and equip the police; you have to fund the judiciary."
HRW in a 27 September statement said the judges investigating the 28 September massacre have made “some important strides”, including interviewing more than 200 victims and bringing charges against Camara and Diaby.
But HRW says “more than 100 victims await the opportunity to provide statements to the investigating judges, and possible mass graves have yet to be investigated.” Judges have yet to interview Moussa Dadis Camara, who held power in Guinea following a December 2008 military coup, and Cpt Claude Pivi, whom human rights groups have implicated in the violence and who continues to hold the post of presidential security minister.