Conakry massacre trial resumes

Since February, more than 100 victims of the 28 September 2009 massacre have been heard at the Dixinn criminal court in Conakry, Guinea. These hearings have been powerful, but have become repetitive, with the risk of dragging the trial out indefinitely.

Hearings resume in the 28 September trial in Conakry (Guinea). Photo: Magistrates enter the courtroom.
Magistrates from the Dixinn Criminal Court enter the courtroom on 24 October 2023 in Conakry, the capital of Guinea. © Abdoulaye Bella Diallo
4 min 8Approximate reading time

In Guinea, justice takes time off during the summer. Between August and September, the judicial holidays put the trial of the massacre at Conakry's Grand Stade on hold. After hearing nearly 100 victims, the Dixinn criminal court took a break. 

When the trial reopened on October 3, victims were again called to the stand, raising fears that the trial, which the Guinean authorities had initially planned to last only a few months, would be prolonged excessively. And on September 28, when the trial marked its first anniversary, it was very difficult to foresee the end of the proceedings.

Hamidou Barry, one of the civil parties' lawyers, nevertheless risks a prediction: "Normally, in 2024, at latest during the first half of the year, I think we should finish the first instance trial.” But when he says this, Barry is expressing a wish rather than information based on a precise official timetable. “Otherwise, we risk spending five years before the trial court," he warns. There are witnesses to be heard, cross-questioning and arguments to be made.  

He says he is defending the interests of the victims, some of whom are ill and could die before the verdict. There are between 700 and 800 victims in total, of whom at least 50 have joined as civil parties since the trial began. At the current rate of hearings, it would take several years to hear them all.

On Wednesday October 25, presiding judge Ibrahima Sory II Tounkara announced the start of a new phase: the hearing of the victims is now over, and that of the witnesses begins on November 6. Barry welcomed this decision. Former high-ranking military officers and ministers will be summoned, before the confrontations that will bring the accused back to the stand. According to political scientist Kabinet Fofana, this should revive public interest in the trial.

Public interest tiring?

When the trial opened, it was widely broadcast on television and radio, as well as on social networks, and was watched by many, particularly during the appearances of the most high-profile members of the junta led by Captain Moussa Dadis Camara. The hearing of Aboubacar Diakité, known as "Toumba", former aide-de-camp to the former head of state, held the country spellbound for several weeks. "At first, there was a lot of excitement. It was a novelty. It was a trial that had been eagerly awaited," recalls Fofana. "Now there's a little weariness, which is understandable.”

When the first victims took the stand in February, this case that had become a spectacle for many Guineans regained its seriousness. Until October, the tragic accounts followed one another, providing a detailed picture of the forms of violence committed during the crackdown on the opposition rally of 28 September 2009. Victims recounted the Red Berets’ assault on the packed stadium. Others spoke of the role of militiamen armed with knives. Women spoke of being raped by the security forces. Finally, some described the torture and abuse they had suffered in the junta's makeshift prisons.

But as the hearings progressed, there was inevitably repetition. Fofana noticed "redundancy in the testimony". "That's understandable, because these are people who have experienced virtually the same events,” he explains. “Admittedly, for the general public it may be redundant, but for professionals and the court, this repetition is fundamental." Fofana, the political scientist closely following the trial, believes that this is what will convince the judges.

Not all victims can take the floor in the case of mass crimes, says Barry, who asks those who have "evidence" to submit it to the court. The lawyer cites as an example the Hissène Habré case, in which 4,000 victims joined as civil parties and only around a hundred witnesses were heard. The Habré trial, which examined human rights violations during eight years of dictatorship in Chad, lasted ten months.

Fears of a political trial

Could the extension of the trial have been dictated by less obvious factors? Does it conceal a political interest? “It's possible," admits Fofana. "It may be a way of occupying the transitional period for a while.” He feels that "the trial will be given a boost as we get closer to the end of the transition", scheduled for January 2025. However, according to Fofana, "on the whole, the trial is proceeding according to plan".

Barry prefers to remain cautious. "I don't have any evidence of possible political interference," he says. Instead, he points to the consequences of this trial’s exceptional nature. "In Guinea, this is the first time that mass crimes are being tried, crimes that fall within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. The trial is proceeding normally, but not everything is perfect.” It is true that the direction of the debates sometimes lacks coherence and that the hearings get lost in peripheral details, with the numerous lawyers often asking the same questions.

To mark the first anniversary of the trial, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) organized a press conference in Guinea. "Judicial actors and the Guinean civil society are contributing through this trial to one of the most significant legal experiences in Africa," declared FIDH Secretary-General Drissa Traoré.

Guinea’s Ministry of Justice is also delighted with the work accomplished. "Today, the Guinean justice system is sending out a very strong image on the international stage, because it has to be said that the independence of the judiciary is being affirmed in deeds and actions. That's what matters most to us," says his spokesman, Lansana Traoré. In the end, the length of the trial seems secondary to him. "What's important is that the people of Guinea know what happened, and that everyone's rights are restored,” he says.

The ministry, he says, is ensuring that "the resources are made available so that the trial can continue and reach its conclusion". A round table on the budget issue was held at the end of September in Conakry, with technical and financial partners. The trial represents a significant cost for Guinea, and the country is wondering whether it can continue to finance it. "Today, lawyers' fees will cost the Guinean state 500 million Guinean francs per month [€55,000]," declared Minister of Justice Alphonse Charles Wright at the meeting. He estimated that between 4 and 5 billion Guinean francs, or between €440,000 and €550,000, remained in the account dedicated to the trial, and called on financial partners to step up. To date, the trial has been financed entirely from the state budget.

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