The removal of Laurent Gbagbo from his position as President of Cote D’Ivoire last year should have marked a new era for a country previously torn apart by internal conflict. Having officially lost the 2010 election to Alassan Ouattara – and subsequently refusing to concede his position – Gbagbo was accused of effectively assuming the role of a tyrant. The country was embroiled in civil war, with horrendous violence and abuses of human rights towards innocent civilians perpetrated by both sides. The despot’s eventual arrest in May of 2011 was hoped to have marked the end to a very bloody chapter in Cote D’Ivoire’s history, but, for many, the situation now seems bleaker than ever.
While militant Gbagbo loyalists continue to mount attacks against President Ouattara’s military, the armed forces have reacted with the mass arrest and imprisonment of purported pro-Gbagbo loyalists. Cote D’Ivoire finds itself caught in a dangerous limbo where the government must be allowed to defend itself without impinging on the freedom of the innocent – a balance that is far from being attained. With the military increasingly relying on flexing its muscles to crush the militant threat, a recent report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) suggests that the actions of Ouattara’s forces are perpetuating rather than quelling this seemingly endless cycle of violence.
The report also spoke of the makeshift detention camps that have been set up across the country to detain Gbagbo supporters, and the horrendous conditions that prisoners are being kept in. I called Matt Wells from HRW to speak about the organisation’s findings and what the country's future holds.
VICE: Hi Matt. So tell me about the military attempting to round up perceived pro-Gbagbo supporters.
Matt Wells: Well, you have neighbourhoods that – prior to the violence after the 2010 election – were heavily concentrated with supporters of one side or the other. The violence also takes on ethnic grounds, in that within Cote D’Ivoire you have certain groups within certain regions of the country that tend to support specific political parties and leaders.
So they're just trying to silence any supporters, basically?
Yeah, what we saw after the string of attacks in August against the military was that the military often responded by rounding up youths from those ethnic groups en masse. Neighbourhoods that were the sites of violence against pro-Ouatarra supporters in the post-election conflicts were targeted in particular. Neighbourhoods such as Yopougon have long been a bastion of Gbagbo supporters, housing the militia men that the military want to weed out.
What about the detention centres that they're taking them to?
They're not official prisons or detention facilities, which means – right off the bat – that the conditions are going to be really poor. They're former police barracks and, in some cases, impromptu military camps. You don’t have the sorts of facilities to humanely detain people. The people we interviewed were crammed into small spaces that became so overcrowded, large numbers had to sleep outside on the grass. They were watched over by soldiers at night, who would walk around, kicking people or hitting them with the butts of their Kalashnikovs to make sure they couldn’t fall asleep.
What about food and water?
They're not being given either. Families sometimes pass small amounts of food to guards, who pass them onto the prisoners, but the end result is essentially being starved while being detained. People are routinely beaten with everything from fists and boots to guns, belts – anything they had on them, really.
And in the worst cases?
In the Adjamé camp, we spoke with five torture victims who'd been subjected to some extremely humiliating practices. One detainee described a room where everyone would go to the bathroom, with the room inevitably becoming full of excrement. If the soldiers didn’t like the way a certain individual answered questions during an interrogation, they might be put in that room and have to endure spending an indefinite amount of time in a room full of excrement before being let out.
The conditions were clearly inhumane and mark the locations as improper for their use, breaking both Ivorian and international law. These military camps should not be inhabited by civilians and the military shouldn’t be in charge of interrogating these people. It’s the responsibility of the judicial police, not the military, who have been in charge of handling the situation since the beginning.
When the captives are eventually released, is there any reason given?
In the vast majority of cases we documented, captives had to pay to get out. You might be held for up to three weeks and eventually you're given a phone to ring family members to bring a substantial amount of money. In one case, we documented a ransom of 150,000 CFA Francs (£100-200), which, for many of these people, is an extreme economic hardship. In many cases money was pooled by uncles, cousins – everyone, really. You have to rely on a lot of people if you want to get out of detention.
Do you think any of the detainees are actually a threat? Or is it more a symbolic gesture against the militia who have attacked military outposts?
I think it’s a combination. From the interviews we did it was clear that some arrests were carried out because the military believed that these guys were in some way linked to the attacks that were carried out. In most cases, the evidence didn’t extend past the place of residence and the ethnic group to which they belong, although arrests were done in "hot pursuit" of attacks on outposts with legitimate evidence. But, as I say, in the vast majority of those that we documented, there was no individualised evidence for the arrest. There was nothing that specifically linked that individual to an attack on a military base – there were just these proxy characteristics that were used to stand in for a perceived threat to national security.
It kind of sounds like a massively immoral power move.
Yeah, in a lot of cases it seemed like little more than a means of extortion, where you round up a huge group of people, bring them into detention, hold them in pretty terrible conditions for several days and then demand they pay a certain amount of money to get released. All without any effort to question people about attacks. To be clear, though, there were sometimes arrests made on sound intelligence, and some of them have actually been charged for crimes. It’s important to distinguish between the cases where people were seemingly picked up for legitimate reasons and the huge mass who were just picked up in neighbourhood round-ups for little more than intimidation, harassment and extortion.
Ouattara’s government obviously has the right to defend themselves against these militia. Can that make it difficult to control an overzealous military because they are, in essence, officially acting for the good of Cote D’Ivoire?
It makes it all the more important that security forces are focusing on those implicated in the attacks. The government has the right and responsibility to protect its population and respond to these types of security threats, but when it goes beyond the arrest of those actually involved and starts becoming an attack on a segment of the population – young males, in particular – it’s really furthering the tensions at the heart of the violence and political crisis. Many of these youths are being pushed away from the government fold and towards the hard-line militants. They’re being treated as criminals, so they may as well act like them.
The government has stated that it needs to show solidarity with the military in the face of the attacks. To me, that sounds like a hesitancy to change the way they’re approaching the issue?
The key is that they can be in solidarity with the military without adopting this drastic and abusive overreach that harms the situation for reconciliation and the return to rule of law. The government response has been pretty good in general. The current Minister of Justice has admitted that there may have been some excesses and misbehaviour during the military's response, and the government has promised an investigation into our findings, which are similar to Amnesty's findings Amnesty and a statement by the UN relating to mass arbitrary arrests and detentions.
It seems that a lot of the military commanders have remained the same since the post-election violence of 2010/2011. Is there a need to reevaluate the system of power, right from the very top?
It’s a question of impunity that still exists throughout the entire military, right from – as you say – the bottom up to the top. The government and President himself have long promised an end to impunity, that no one, regardless of political and military rank, will be above the law, but 20 months after Gbagbo’s arrest and Ouattara’s assumption of power, we still haven’t seen that. We’ve yet to see any arrests of the pro-Ouattara forces for the heinous attacks of the Republican forces on their way to the arrest of Gbagbo.
That sends a message loud and clear to the military that they remain above the law. It allows them to continue to return to these heavy-handed tactics without fear of consequence. So long as that remains, we’re likely to continue to see these kinds of abuses whenever there's any sort of tension or threat to security. The government needs to start living up to its promises and start the prosecutions.
That they do. Thanks for your time, Matt.
Follow Patrick on Twitter: @spirit_of_yoof
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