Controversial constitutional referendum goes ahead despite months of protests: several killed

On 22nd March 2020, legislative elections and the controversial referendum on a new constitution took place in Guinea, in a context of violence, clashes with security forces and interruptions in the access to the internet and social media.

The controversial constitutional referendum, initially planned for February 2020 but postponed several times, took place in an atmosphere of violence, with several people killed. According to The Front national pour la défense de la Constitution (FNDC; National Front for the Defense of the Constitution), a platform of opposition parties, civil society organisations and trade unions formed in April 2019, at least ten people were killed on 22nd March and another four people in N'Zérékoré, while the government claims only two people died in the violence, while seven police officers were severely injured. Violence continued the days after the referendum, including in N'Zérékoré, where deadly clashes were reported between communities, and attacks on churches and mosques. 

Since 25th February 2020, the Guinean army was 'put on alert' and was deployed throughout the country, while they also reportedly participated in the repression of protests and protesters, said the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

According to news reports, there were attacks on voting stations, destruction of election materials and clashes between protesters and security forces. Prior to the referendum, the African Union, the regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) withdrew their support and observation missions due to concerns on the credibility and transparency of the vote, including irregularities in the electoral roll. An audit of the electoral roll by the OIF, the United Nations and the European Union in 2018 revealed that there is no proof of identification for 2.5 million names on the electoral roll, out of 7.7 million names throughout the country. Meanwhile, the national electoral commission claims they have cleaned up the roll, but this has not been verified by an independent expert or organisation.

As reported previously on the Monitor, protests and activism against a replacement of the current 2010 Constitution have been met with excessive use of force, killing dozens of protesters, and arbitrary arrests and prosecution of human rights defenders and protesters. The 2010 Constitution limits presidential terms to two five-year terms, consecutive or not, preventing incumbent president Alpha Condé from running for a third term later this year. The FNDC has been at the forefront of protests and campaigns against changes to the Constitution and a possible third term for president Condé.

In a statement issued by Amnesty International prior to the constitutional referendum, the human rights group said that authorities have carried out blind raids in suburbs of Conakry known for their opposition to the replacement of the Constitution, and arbitrarily detained young persons who later disappeared, outlining that this amounts to forced disappearances under international law. Likewise, in a press statement several human rights organisations, including the CSO Avocats sans Frontières de Guinée (Lawyers without Borders Guinea) condemned the human rights violations perpetrated in the country, including 'abductions' of people suspected of opposing the replacement of the current constitution:

"To date, our organisations have documented the killing of nearly 40 people, numerous injuries, many arbitrary arrests and detentions, and considerable material damage during FNDC protests. Worse, for some time, a new phenomenon has appeared in the operating mode of the police. These are abductions, similar to kidnappings, whose victims are people supposedly hostile to the drafting of a new Constitution, in violation of all the rules of law in the matter. " (translated from French)

On 27th March 2020, the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) announced the provisional results of the referendum, with 91.59 percent of the votes in favour of a new Constitution, and an estimated participation rate of 61 percent. The FNDC and the opposition in Guinea, who boycotted the referendum and legislative elections, has rejected these results, calling it a 'masquerade'. The conditions in which the vote took place was criticised by the USA, the European Union and France.

Guinea was placed on the Monitor Watchlist on 17th October 2019, and remains on the Watchlist, for its rapid decline in civic space. 


Arrest and prosecution of pro-democracy activists

Pro-democracy activists and FNDC leaders Ibrahima Diallo and Sékou Koundouno were arrested on 6th March 2020 in Conakry by officers of the Investigation and Intervention Brigade (BRI - Brigade de recherche et d’interpellation), following a press conference in which they reportedly denounced kidnappings and arbitrary arrests and accused the director of the Central Direction of the Judicial Police of phone tapping, torture and ill-treatment, according to Amnesty International. A few days later, on 9th March 2020, the two were charged on several counts: assault, assaulting a public officer and production and dissemination of data threatening public order and security. They were provisionally released on 12th March 2020, and placed under judicial control.

Diallo, who is also the coordinator of Tournons la Page Guinea, and Koundouno of the social movement Balai Citoyen Guinea were previously prosecuted for their activism. As reported previously on the Monitor, both were arrested prior to the FNDC protests on 14th, 15th and 16th October, sentenced to six months in prison on 22nd October 2019 and provisionally released on 28th December 2019 by the Appeal Court of Conakry.

On 9th March 2020, the Magistrate’s Court of Mafanco sentenced three women FNDC activists - Nene Camara, Yarie Camara and Mariam Diallo - to a suspended prison sentence of six months on the charge of 'directly inciting a mob', said the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA). The three were arrested during a protest on 19th February 2020 in Conakry's suburb of Bonfi and spent 19 days in prison.

The Court of Kaloum sentenced FNDC and civil society activist Abdourahmane Bella Bah to a suspended prison sentence of one year and a fine of 20 million Guinean francs (approximately 2,100 USD) on 5th February 2020, according to local media. Bella Bah, president of the Plateforme Esprit Citoyen (Platform Citizen Spirit) was reportedly arrested on 25th January 2020 during a commemoration and charged with 'dissemination and making available to others data likely to disturb public order via a computer system' under the 2016 Law on Cyber Security. Advocate Salif Béavogui, Bella Bah's legal representative, said they will appeal the sentence and commented to online media outlet :

"For the past 5 months, we have been working in the courts to defend the citizens who are members of the FNDC and who express their opposition to the idea of a new constitution. But it is curious, those who express their will for a new constitution and who make shattering statements are never prosecuted. So there is always double standards." (translated from French)

Intimidation of and attacks against civil society on the day of the referendum

According to the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), officers of the Special Unit for the Securitisation of the Legislative Elections tried to forcibly enter the offices of the CSO Association des Victimes, Parents et Amis du 28 septembre 2009 (AVIPA; Association of Victims, Parents and Friends of 28 September 2009) on 22nd March 2020, the day of the constitutional referendum and legislative elections, but staff managed to close the doors before the armed forces could enter. Acts of intimidation against at least two staff members of the organisation also occurred, including anonymous telephone calls.

AVIPA works on getting justice for the victims of the massacre of 28th September 2009. On that date, security forces open fired and killed more than 150 people and raped more than 100 women during a demonstration against the candidacy for presidential elections of military junta leader Moussa Dadis Camara of Conseil national pour la démocratie et le développement (CNDD) in a stadium in Conakry.

On the same day, a group of young people, supported by security officers, attacked the residence of human rights defender Mamadou Baïlo Barry, breaking down the gate and throwing stones at the house and Baïlo Barry's vehicle. Baïlo Barry is a member of FNDC, and the CSO Destin en Main, and was previously arrested on 12th October 2019 in the run-up to the mass FNDC protests, and sentenced to six months in prison. 


Foreign journalist assaulted, detained and deported

French journalist and correspondent for media outlet Le Média, Thomas Dietrich was assaulted and threatened by security forces after they noticed him filming them beating a protester on 5th March 2020. In a tweet, the journalist said he received death threats and the officers hit his shoulder while they were trying to grab his phone. A day later, he was detained and deported to France following the withdrawal of his accreditation by Guinea's national media regulator Haute Autorité de la Communication (HAC). Dietrich had been critical in his reporting on Guinea.  Previously, on 12th February 2020, the journalist received a verbal death threat from a police officer after filming the arrest of children between ten and twelve years old in Coyah, a suburb of Conakry. The police officer briefly confiscated Dietrich's phone and accreditation.

Access to the internet and social media disrupted in the run-up to and during the 22nd March vote

Social media platforms Twitter, Facebook and Instagram were blocked, and the WhatsApp server partially restricted on 21st March according to network data from the internet freedom CSO NetBlocks. The restrictions continued on the day of the referendum, 22nd March 2020. According to the CSO, 'the disruption is consistent with techniques used to restrict online content close to the application layer, hence unrelated to maintenance work or physical layer outages.' The day prior to the disruptions, on 20th March 2020, a widespread, near complete internet blackout lasted for two hours.

Peaceful Assembly

Protests against constitutional referendum

Clashes broke out in Conakry's neighbourhood of Ratoma on 29th February 2020 following the announcement of the postponement of the legislative elections and the referendum. According to media sources, barricades were erected and young protesters burned tyres and threw stones, while security forces responded with tear gas.

FNDC called for intense protests, from 5th March onwards, to demand the departure of president Alpha Condé. On 4th March 2020, local authorities in Conakry denied authorisation for the protests on 5th March, reportedly using grounds of 'preparation of the International Day of Women' and the 'presence of an ECOWAS delegation'. Despite the ban, FNDC encouraged people to go ahead with the demonstrations. Clashes between protesters and security forces reportedly took place, in which two people lost their lives according to FNDC. The latter also said that the residence of FNDC's coordinator Abdourahmane Sano was surrounded by police for part of the day.

One killed during student protests

On 17th February 2020, one student was killed and several injured during clashes with security officers in the town of Lola, near the border with Liberia. Secondary school students protested. According to the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) the students protested against the absence of teachers, who had been on strike for weeks.