Guinea massacre trial: it’s time for the witnesses

The absence of the accused Claude Pivi, on the run since his escape from prison on November 4, marked the resumption of hearings in the major trial on the Conakry stadium massacre in Guinea. Security of the trial and its participants is a cause for concern. But this has not prevented some of the key witnesses from starting their hearings, after those of the accused and the victims.

Oumar Sanoh, a witness at the trial in Conakry (Guinea), is a former Chief of General Staff of the Guinean armed forces.
The former Chief of General Staff of the Guinean armed forces, General Oumar Sanoh, recounts the day of the September 28, 2009 massacre in court in Conakry on November 15, 2023. © Djoma TV
5 min 31Approximate reading time

On Monday November 13, judges, lawyers and defendants returned to the criminal court in Dixinn, in the Guinean capital, after a two-week break and, above all, a spectacular operation to free several defendants in the 2009 Conakry stadium massacre trial. Around the Court of Appeal building, where the court has been relocated for this extraordinary trial, security arrangements have not at first sight been strengthened. Members of the police are stationed in front of the gate, but no more than usual. At the entrance, bags are opened and visitors are searched using a metal detector. It's been a good while that the number of staff mobilised for each hearing has been reduced compared with the start of the trial. A year ago, when it opened, the area was cordoned off by dozens of soldiers, police officers and prison guards. A roadblock closed off the road in front of the court and there were countless checks carried out.

On November 13, however, the atmosphere in the courtroom was unusual. In the dock, a seat between former head of the junta Moussa Dadis Camara and gendarmerie colonel Blaise Goumou remained empty. This is where Colonel Claude Pivi, the minister in charge of presidential security during the CNDD junta, used to sit. Moussa Tiegboro Camara, former head of the anti-drug unit, completes the row. On November 4 an armed commando got the four defendants out of Conakry's central prison. They were all caught by the authorities a few hours later, except for Pivi, who is still on the run.

Lawyers under threat

The trial is entering a new phase. After the defendants and victims, the witnesses are to give their version of events. At the start of the hearing, the court president called to the stand Tibou Kamara, who was Minister of Communication at the time of the massacre. But one after the other, the lawyers asked to speak. It was Pivi's lawyer, Fodé Kaba Chérif, who spoke first. "One of the defendants is absent from this room," he said solemnly, before continuing a little provocatively: "Mr President, I would like to know where my client is." He asked for the trial to be suspended because Pivi "will not be able to hear the witnesses to prepare his defence".

For the prosecution, this argument does not hold water. As Pivi had attended more than a year of trials, he had been able to follow the proceedings up to that point, they argue. As for the civil parties' lawyers, they consider that "the problem is real" but prefer to continue with the trial. "We would have liked all the defendants to attend the witness hearings. We are asking that all measures be taken to bring the fugitive back," pleaded one of them.

A number of counsel - for both the defence and civil parties - also took the floor to talk about the threats now hanging over their safety. Jean-Baptiste Jocamey Haba, lawyer for Dadis, said that some of his colleagues "see vehicles around their homes every day and every night". "We will be forced to suspend our participation [in the trial] if measures are not taken," he warned. He also denounced the security measures taken at the central prison, which now prevent lawyers from gaining access to their clients. Special forces and gendarmes, he says, have replaced prison guards.

Politically correct

It was 3pm when witness Kamara was finally able to step up to the microphone to give his evidence. Dressed in a black suit, with a gold bracelet on his wrist and apparently relaxed, Dadis watched him cross the courtroom out of the corner of his eye. Kamara took an oath, swearing to "tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth". In front of the judges, the former minister spared his ex-boss and portrayed him as a man of compromise, even suffering from "an allergy to taking decisions", incapable of making a decision on his own. This description is the exact opposite of the hot-tempered leader that Guineans had become used to on television, sacking officials during his "Dadis Show".

In government, Kamara described himself as a minister without portfolio and without an office. "I didn't have any specific remit, nor a mandate with precise responsibilities," he told the court. But he did advise the head of state, particularly on political issues. On the night of 27 to 28 September 2009, he was summoned to Camp Alpha Yaya, the presidency headquarters. With the opposition demonstration due the next day, Kamara suggested that Dadis "talk to the organisers" to "reach an agreement with them" and thus avoid "a showdown with an uncertain outcome". The telephone call to Sidya Touré, president of the Union des forces républicaines (UFR), was cordial, Kamara recalls, even though Touré refused to postpone the meeting. This is a very different version from the one the opposition leader told the investigating judges. In their minutes, Touré describes Dadis as having completely let rip at the other end of the phone line, even threatening to "make [him] responsible for anything that might happen". Halimatou Camara, lawyer for the civil parties, challenged the witness and denounced the glaring discrepancy between his account and that of the victims: "You played the role of the politically correct!”

Over two days, Kamara did not talk about the massacre itself. He said he knew nothing about the 150 or so dead, or the 100 or so women raped at the stadium, to the point that he sometimes seemed cold and distant.

“With hindsight, don't you think that if President Dadis had agreed to clarify his position [by announcing that he was not standing in the presidential election], this demonstration would not have taken place?” asked Amadou DS Bah, coordinator of the victims' lawyers' collective.  

“With time, hindsight and my modest experience, I conclude that the stakes of power always give rise to quarrels that sometimes have a dramatic outcome, as we saw with the events of 28 September," the witness replied.

Who had authority over the red berets?

The Wednesday November 15 hearing was all the more eagerly awaited as Kamara's hearing had disappointed the civil parties. It was the former armed forces Chief of General Staff, General Oumar Sanoh, who was to take the stand. He recounted the day of the massacre from his point of view as the man at the heart of the Guinean state's security apparatus.

On 28 September 2009, he had ordered the soldiers to stay in their barracks. This order was respected, he claims. However, at the end of the morning, he received a call at his office. It was a woman, introducing herself as the head of the International Red Cross. She said she was at the stadium, that her teams were overwhelmed and unable to manage the situation, particularly for transport of the dead and injured. She asked him to help her find ambulances. Sanoh ended up sending military trucks to transport the bodies of demonstrators killed at the stadium. "The lady loaded 155 bodies into the four trucks,” he told the court.

Before being left at the morgue, the vehicles were parked at Camp Samory. On October 2, when the junta returned the bodies to the families, only 57 were displayed on the Fayçal Mosque esplanade. Around a hundred bodies were missing. Sanoh had no explanation. He said that on the evening of the massacre he met Dadis. The president shouted at his men, "the palace furniture" as the soldiers directly under the orders of a CNDD leader are called, and accused them of having betrayed him.

When the prosecutor asked him if all the soldiers reported to him, in his capacity as Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, Sanoh replied with an almost inaudible yes, accompanied by a nod of his head, as if he was dreading the rest of the questioning.

“Were the red berets [who fired on the population] under your authority or not?” the prosecutor continued.

“Those red berets were not my responsibility.”

“Were they not part of the military, Sir?”

“Normally, they should have reported to me, but then if you are told it's not your problem..."

Sanoh paused for a long moment. The presidential guard was not under his orders but directly under Dadis, the president of the transition, he acknowledged.

The trial is due to resume on November 27, with other key witnesses such as the gendarmerie chief of staff at the time of the events.

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