Guinea’s National Assembly vote in favor of a new criminal code abolishing the death penalty is a significant step for human rights in the country, but the code contains provisions which will strengthen the impunity enjoyed by security personnel and repress the expression of dissent, Amnesty International said.
The new criminal code removes the death sentence from the list of applicable penalties and criminalizes torture for the first time. But some of the most frequently used forms of torture are defined as cruel and inhuman treatment, for which the law carries no explicit penalties.
“Fifteen years since it last carried out executions, the promulgation of the law will make Guinea the 19th country in Africa to abolish the death penalty for all crimes, putting itself on the right side of history,” said François Patuel Amnesty International West Africa researcher.
“But other provisions in the new code will strengthen the culture of impunity for security forces, restrict freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and cast a dark cloud over this otherwise historic win for human rights. When promulgating the code, the president should ensure that it will be revised to bring these provisions in line with international and regional human rights law.”
The penalty for torture ranges from a fine of 500,000 Guinean Francs ($56) to prison terms of up to twenty years in detention. However, some acts which would fall within the definition of torture under international law are classified in the criminal code as “inhuman and cruel” treatment, for which no penalties are specified. These acts include rape, electric shocks, burns, stress positions, sensory deprivation, mock executions and simulated drowning.
Amnesty International and Guinean NGOs have documented at least four cases of torture since the beginning of the year, including one which was filmed and broadcast on social media. No suspected perpetrators have been prosecuted.
The code also contains vague language around actions justifiable as “self-defense,” and a new provision called “state of necessity,” which could essentially be used to shield members of the security forces who cause death or injury by the use of excessive force. International law and standards on law enforcement clearly stipulate that security forces may use force only when strictly necessary and proportionate for the performance of their duty.
“The Guinean authorities should not on the one hand abolish the death penalty and on the other exempt the security forces from criminal liability for killings claimed to be in the name of crime prevention,” said Patuel.
The code’s provisions on assemblies remain vague and unclear, giving the authorities a wide margin of discretion to ban peaceful demonstrations on grounds that are not in line with international standards. Moreover, organizers of demonstrations could be held liable for unlawful acts committed by demonstrators.
The code also retains oppressive laws that criminalize defamation and “insults” directed at public figures, whether in the form of gestures, text or illustrations, carrying a maximum penalty of five years’ jail.
Last year, security forces killed dozens of people and wounded hundreds at a peaceful demonstration. None of the perpetrators have been brought to justice.
Since the beginning of the year, five trade unionists and one journalist have been sentenced to prison terms for insulting the head of state. Another journalist was sentenced to paying a fine of 1,000,000 Guinean francs ($111) for complicity in insulting the head of state. The UN Human Rights Committee has underlined that heads of state and government are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition, and has expressed concern about laws prohibiting defamation of the head of state and the protection of the honor of public officials.
After the adoption of the law at the national assembly, the president will have to promulgate it before it becomes enforceable. If he has not done so within 10 days, the law becomes enforceable.