Conakry’s groundbreaking trial threatened by financial issues

In Guinea, eight months after the start of a historic trial, some lawyers - for both the defence and the victims - have never been paid. On 29 May, they went on strike. They are demanding legal aid, which the government refuses to pay. According to the authorities, it is the very funding of the trial for the 2009 massacre in Conakry's stadium that is in fact about to run out.

Funding problems at the Conakry trial in Guinea (
Eight months after it opened, the landmark trial into the Conakry stadium massacre in September 2009 is threatened by a lack of funds and the non-payment of lawyers. © Cellou Binani / AFP
4 min 57Approximate reading time

There are still dozens of victims to be heard, the appearance of witnesses has not yet taken place, nor have the closing arguments. It is difficult to foresee the end of the mass trial that opened in Conakry on 28 September 2022. Eleven defendants are in the dock, suspected of having played a role in the repression of an opposition rally that left more than 150 dead in 2009. As the eighth month of the trial draws to a close, the lawyers have decided to boycott the hearings from Monday 29 May. They are demanding legal aid for their clients and improved working conditions. Whether they represent the defence or the victims, they are putting up an unprecedented united front.

The discontent had been brewing for several months, but was made public in a letter to the Minister of Justice on May 17. "The scope of the tasks, the complexity of the case and the time taken by the trial require the payment of additional fees that our clients are not in a position to bear," the lawyers wrote.

"This is not serious"

From Monday to Wednesday, three days a week, Paul Yomba Kourouma goes to the Dixinn criminal court to defend Aboubacar Diakité, known as "Toumba", a former aide-de-camp to Moussa Dadis Camara, head of the military junta at the time of the events. To date, Yomba has not received a single Guinean franc (GNF) from his client. After Toumba tried to kill his boss on 3 December 2009, "there was a price on his head", says Yomba. "He lost everything, he has absolutely nothing." The lawyer has now been designated by his colleagues as the spokesperson for the protest movement. 

"A trial of this nature is always subsidised by the State," he says, citing the trial of Hissène Habré in Senegal in 2015 as an example. "When I criticised the unpreparedness [of the trial in Conakry], I was told that everything was ready. But look at our working conditions, we're like schoolchildren. We can't even put in a computer and our things are on the floor.” The tables reserved for the lawyers are too cramped, he complains, and there aren't enough of them. Some counsels find themselves seated as "spectators". "It's not serious", says Yomba.

Counsels for the civil parties, on the other hand, are mainly focusing on the claims concerning their working conditions, which would be the easiest to satisfy. Although the trial has opened after a long wait of thirteen years, the authorities should not be given a pretext to stop it, they say.

The impasse

The Ministry of Justice is hiding behind an implacable logic. "The situation is simple. When you have an agreement with your client, your client is responsible for paying your fees,” with “one exception," explains its spokesman, Lansana Traoré: the court-appointed lawyer who must be paid by the State. There is only one in this trial. As far as the other lawyers are concerned, "the State is not obliged to support [them]".

A median solution could be proposed. "Following the actions they [the lawyers] have taken to [our] department, it is currently looking into the possibility of granting them bonuses," explains Traoré. But while this not yet been approved by the ministry, it has already been rejected by the lawyers. "We are not people to be given bonuses, but to be respected and paid", says Yomba.

The lawyer has become a star in Guinea, and even in the sub-region. He is renowned for his lyrical flights of fancy. As of 29 May, "the workers will no longer go to work", says this tenor of the bar. "The judges only have to judge if they can. We won't come back until [our demands] have been met, and we won't accept any promises, absolutely nothing.”

Yomba can't be harsh enough towards the Minister of Justice, Alphonse Charles Wright, whom he describes as a victim of "power fatigue". "He is someone we don't even recognise any more. It's help [that we're asking for], not begging for the benefit of our clients. That's the law.”

As announced, there was no hearing on 29 May. "No court-appointed lawyer will agree to take on this case, given the ill-treatment suffered by us," warns Yomba. And if some of them wanted to take the risk, they would be unable to avoid a deadlock, he says: "The trial will have to be done all over again, because the lawyers don't know the case file and they will need several months to study them.”  

A trial short of funding

The breakdown is of concern to the Guinean Organisation for the Defence of Human and Citizens’ Rights (OGDH), a civil party in the trial. Its communication officer, Alseny Sall, called on the authorities to find an urgent solution. "There is a risk disrupting the smooth running of this emblematic trial. We do understand the lawyers' demands. We hope that they will reach an agreement.” It is in the interests of the ruling military junta which cannot afford to lose a trial, he says, that has made a major contribution to its international image.

But the government's refusal to pay the lawyers could be masking a deeper funding problem. In mid-May, the authorities announced that the money would soon run out. According to the coordinator of the Steering committee for the 28-September 2009 trial, Seforé Milimouno, "the 13 billion 205 million GNF (approximately €1.4 million) mobilised as part of the fund for organising the trial have almost been used up. This budget was supposed to cover 8 months of trial. We thought it was not going to last" longer than that. On 12 May, the Minister of Justice pointed the finger at the government’s technical and financial partners who, he said, have not provided the funding they had promised. "It is from the national development budget that the trial is being financed", explained Alphonse Charles Wright.

In 2018, when the opening of the trial seemed imminent, the then Minister of Justice, Cheick Sako, announced a provisional budget of more than 78 billion GNF, or nearly 8 million euros. At the time, the Guinean government said it would provide 77% of the budget, the United States and the European Union 17% and 5.8% respectively. "After the last steering committee, some partners said they were going to support Guinea," tries to reassure Traoré, the ministry spokesman. But Sall, from the OGDH, is less confident: "We have had discussions with most of the partners, the United States, the European Union... Their priorities may have changed. It's not very clear on their side. We have the impression that the United States has not earmarked any funds to support the trial directly. And the same goes for the European Union.” In his view, a helping hand could come from the International Criminal Court (ICC). "The ICC could perhaps make a plea to these countries.”

Hearings on hold

Sall wonders whether the initial funds “were managed wisely". In February the Minister of Justice had to "bang his fist on the table and freeze certain bonuses [for officers responsible for securing court hearings]". The Minister of Justice boasts that he has managed to make savings: "We were talking about the deployment of 750 officers. Per week, that cost us GNF 419 million 700 thousand. It was colossal. I said we have to make sure that only the people mobilised in the field get their bonuses. We had to readjust the security plan. This is what was examined and adopted,", said the Minister on 12 May.

For the time being, the trial has been suspended until 5 June.

All our articles about: