After 14 years, more than 50 survivors of Guinea’s 2009 stadium massacre are seeing significant progress in their quest for justice.
Human Rights Watch on 25 September 2023 announced that the landmark trial, being held in a domestic court in Guinea, is making strides in addressing the massacre of peaceful demonstrators that occurred in the country’s capital, Conakry in 2009.
This trial, which began a year ago, on September 28, 2022, this year coincides with the 14th anniversary of the attack by hundreds of members of Guinea’s security forces in a stadium in Conakry. Government forces opened fire on tens of thousands of opposition supporters peacefully gathered there. By late afternoon, at least 150 Guineans lay dead or dying in and around the stadium complex.
A number of women inside the stadium were subjected to brutal sexual violence, including rape and assault with objects like sticks, batons, rifle butts, and bayonets., The security forces tried to cover up the crime by hiding the evidence by sealing off the stadium and morgues, moving some bodies and burying them in mass graves. Some units deployed in the neighbourhoods known to be opposition strongholds committed more abuses, including murder, rape, theft, and unlawful detention.
A Human Rights Watch investigation found that the killings, rape and other crimes committed on and after September 28 are considered crimes against humanity. That the violent actions were not the work of a few unruly soldiers. The lack of any apparent reason for the demonstrators’ actions, along with the systematic way the security forces carried out the attack, their failure to use non-lethal methods to disperse the crowd inside the stadium, and the presence of officials, including a Cabinet minister responsible for security, all suggest that these crimes were premeditated and organised. An international commission of inquiry came to a similar conclusion.
On September 28, 2022, 13 years after the violent incident, a landmark trial for the crimes began. Although long overdue, it was a relief for victims who had repeatedly called for holding the attackers to account and revealing the truth about what transpired inside the stadium that day. Under Guinean domestic law, 11 men, including a former president and government ministers were charged with a range of crimes including murder, assassination, rape, sexual assault, indecent assault, intentional assault and battery, kidnapping, torture, failure to assist victims in the massacre and the events that followed, theft, looting, arson, armed robbery, and the illegal possession of firearms.
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The accused include Capt. Moussa Dadis Camara, a former self-declared president of Guinea; Lt. Aboubacar Diakité (aka Toumba), Dadis Camara’s personal aide de camp and the head of his personal security detail; Cece Rafael Haba, Toumba’s former bodyguard; Marcel Guilavogui, a former bodyguard of Dadis Camara; and Moussa Tiégboro Camara (Tiégboro), a former secretary of state in charge of the fight against drugs and organised crime. Others are Col Claude Pivi (Pivi), minister for presidential security in 2009 under Dadis Camara; Col. Abdoulaye Chérif Diaby, Health minister in 2009; Gendarme Mamadou Aliou Keïta; Gendarme Ibrahima Camara (popularly known as Kalonzo); Blaise Gomou; and Paul Mansa Guilavogui, a military staff sergeant at the time of the violent events.
Since the trial commenced, more than 50 survivors of the 2009 stadium massacre have presented their testimonies. However, all the 11 accused have pleaded not guilty to all charges, as evidenced by a report by the International Federation for Human Rights. The trial recently entered a judicial recess in August and September but is scheduled to resume on October 3, 2023.
Elise Keppler, the associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch, emphasized the significance of this trial as a beacon of justice for the victims and a potential catalyst for accountability efforts worldwide.
“The victims and their families have long campaigned for this trial and deserve to see the people responsible for the massacre held to account,” Ms Keppler said. “The trial is a landmark justice effort for the victims and the country, and it should help inspire more domestic accountability efforts globally. It is the first of its kind involving human rights abuses of this scale in Guinea and a rare current example of domestic accountability for atrocities involving high-level suspects.”
She added that the trial, unique in its scale and domestic accountability for high-level suspects, has garnered national attention through live broadcasts of the proceedings and it needs continued lauding, scrutiny and support from international players, including the International Criminal Court (ICC), United Nations and donors.
Worth mentioning, however, is that the ICC has played a big role in seeking justice for the 2009 stadium massacre in Guinea. In October 2009, it began looking into the situation in the country and has been keeping an eye on the case ever since. However, the ICC has now closed its investigation into the massacre. This decision was made because a trial for these crimes began in a local Guinean court. The ICC only steps in when national courts cannot or won’t handle serious crimes.
Even though Guinea’s criminal code included crimes against humanity in 2016, the accused people aren’t facing charges for crimes against humanity or other international crimes. The judges who conducted the pre-trial investigation into the 2009 stadium massacre did not accept to classify the charges as crimes against humanity when they decided to send the case to trial. Some lawyers unsuccessfully tried to appeal this decision.
Since there are no charges for crimes against humanity, it might mean that the seriousness of the crimes is not fully captured by the existing charges. Some legal experts say these are mass crimes (crimes de masse), but the charges do not reflect this. This could mean that the justice process misses the opportunity for maximum impact, especially for the communities that suffered the most from the crimes.
However, now that the case is going to trial, the judges at the trial might still choose to call the charges crimes against humanity. It remains to be seen whether this will be achieved.
Meanwhile, the current political situation in Guinea presents potential risks to the ongoing trial. On September 5, 2021, Guinean army officers staged a coup, arresting then-president Alpha Condé. The coup leaders, self-identified as the National Committee for Reconciliation and Development (CNRD), declared the dissolution of the government and constitution, initiating a transition period. Col. Mamady Doumbouya, the head of Guinea’s special forces and the leader of the coup, assumed control of the transition.
In 2023, international media reports highlighted protests against the junta in Conakry and smaller demonstrations across the country, resulting in civilian casualties and arrests by state security forces. Many of these protests were led by the Forces Vives de Guinée, a coalition of civil society groups and political parties primarily advocating for the release of political prisoners, the lifting of the ban on demonstrations and engagement in political dialogue.
These events could potentially disrupt the court proceedings if adequate measures are not taken to ensure the safety of witnesses, victims, lawyers, and others involved in the case. The changes in the political landscape could lead to shifts in priorities, which might affect the allocation of resources and attention to the trial. Already, there are concerns about the trial’s dwindling budget, which has raised questions about the inadequacy of the resources required for the completion of the case. These financial limitations have the potential to hinder the trial’s advancement.
It is, therefore, crucial that Guinean authorities maintain their commitment to seek justice for the human rights violations that happened on September 28, 2009, including the massacre and rape cases. They should also adopt a wider strategy to protect human rights, such as lifting of the ban on public demonstrations and addressing the issues raised by the opposition. It is equally important to restore democratic rule and hold accountable those responsible for other grave crimes, such as the killings and abuses that took place during the national protests in 2007.