In Guinea, where nearly 400 political prisoners are languishing behind bars, the government of Alpha Condé denies their existence and public opinion is trying to mobilise Guineans and « citizens of the world » on social networks. In France, more and more political voices are taking up the issue.
17 April 2021 marked the International Day of Political Prisoners. This was an opportunity for several citizens and opposition leaders to denounce the treatment reserved for this category of prisoners in sub-Saharan countries, which do not always respect human rights. Unfortunately, Guinea is no exception to the rule and it is one of the many voices that spoke out on this day to draw attention to a problem that is too often ignored. That of Cellou Dalein Diallo, president of the Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea (UFDG), the main opposition party, addressing a message of support to his « collaborators and to the many militants (…) arbitrarily detained in Guinean prisons », following the protest movement launched in 2020 against the third term of Alpha Condé.
In Guinea, more than 400 people have been languishing in prison for six months for opposing the electoral manoeuvres of the Head of State. « They are accused of manufacturing and possessing weapons of war. They are also accused of undermining the internal security of the state without any proof. They are arrested and sequestered, » deplored Cellou Dalein Diallo. « The government is also denying the existence of these crimes. The director of communication of the UFDG, Joachin Baba Millimono, denounces the « absurdity » and « denial of justice » at work. « Unfortunately, the debate is not about the definition of a political prisoner, but about the very fact of denying the existence of politicians in prison. For his part, President Alpha Condé believes that there are no political prisoners in his country.
Guinea: opinion tries to mobilise the international community
Even if symbols count, it will take more than international days to change the fate of these victims of arbitrariness. Governments, through their more or less tight control of the media, do everything they can to keep the problem under wraps. In the face of this desire for invisibilisation, voices are being heard: those of ordinary citizens using digital means that escape state surveillance. For example, the Change platform is currently used to support petitions demanding the release of political prisoners in Guinea. Launched on 25 April 2021 by the writer Tierno Monénembo, one of these petitions already has more than 3,000 signatories, mobilising the relatives and families of the prisoners. The writer called on « all consciences, all democrats who love justice and freedom in Africa and elsewhere in the world, to sign this petition to demand the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners in Guinea.
Other petitions, with a more international and legal connotation, seek to mobilise Guineans and « citizens of the free world » to denounce Alpha Condé’s ban on « international lawyers for political prisoners to visit Guinea, thus violating the fundamental principle of the right to defence while placing itself in total contradiction with Guinean domestic law and international norms. On Monday 3 May, the Collectif pour la transition en Guinée (CTG) denounced the inhumane conditions of detention for the prisoners, several of whom died for lack of care. For Ibrahim Sorel Keita, spokesman for the CTG and vice-president of the association SOS Racism, « these prisoners are people who are opposed to the desire for a third term and life presidency of Alpha Conde, the Guinean president. And because of this opposition, they were arrested, and some of them were even kidnapped. And today – six months later – there is still no trial. The families have no news of these people. »
These calls for help are beginning to be echoed by international opinion, as shown by the recent statements of Jean-Yves Leconte, a socialist senator representing French citizens living outside France: « We must not despair that Alpha Condé will change and come up with better measures to truly reform his governance and make the system more virtuous with real checks and balances. But if this path is not followed and the regime of Alpha Conde continues to oscillate between repression and predation, then yes, sanctions are needed. The same is true of 32 MEPs, who recently questioned the head of EU diplomacy in an open letter: « How does the EU intend to implement its new instrument of sanctions to punish those responsible for serious human rights violations in Guinea? ».
Covid-19, a sign of a catastrophic humanitarian situation
A year ago, Amnesty International sounded the alarm about the lack of health measures to protect the thousands of prisoners in African prisons from the virus. It was a reminder that many of the people locked up in these overcrowded, infection-prone places were locked up for reasons of opinion. « In many countries in the region, the international organisation explained, a large proportion of the prison population is behind bars solely for the peaceful exercise of their human rights. »And Amnesty advocates for the early, provisional or conditional release of prisoners who are elderly or suffer from pre-existing medical conditions, as well as women and girls who are pregnant or imprisoned with their children. This recommendation is sometimes followed. In Somaliland, President Muse Bihi Abdi pardoned 574 prisoners in order to relieve prison congestion. Ethiopian leaders, for their part, have released more than 10,000 prisoners in order to prevent clusters from forming.
But not all countries have shown the same leniency, especially towards certain opposition figures. RFI recently mentioned the case of Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko. A candidate in the 2016 presidential elections in Congo-Brazzaville, Mokoko is being persecuted by the authorities. Sentenced to 20 years in prison for having spoken in a video about how to remove President Sassou-Nguesso from power, the 75-year-old former general, who was diagnosed with coronavirus last year in his Brazzaville prison, symbolises the struggle of thousands of opponents « guilty » of expressing an opinion deemed dangerous by the government. In South Sudan, hundreds, if not thousands, of alleged opponents, journalists and members of civil society have also been detained without charge since 2013. Eritrea is not spared from this scourge either: thousands of people have been locked up for years with no prospect of release, simply for expressing criticism of the state.