Armed forces loyal to President Alassane Ouattara have killed at least 149 real or perceived supporters of the former President Laurent Gbagbo since taking control of the commercial capital in mid-April, 2011, Human Rights Watch said today.
Pro-Gbagbo militiamen killed at least 220 men in the days immediately preceding and following Gbagbo’s arrest on April 11, when the nearly four-month conflict drew to a close.
Between May 13 and 25, Human Rights Watch interviewed 132 victims and witnesses to violence by both sides during the battle for Abidjan and in the weeks after Gbagbo’s arrest. Killings, torture, and inhumane treatment by Ouattara’s armed forces continued while a Human Rights Watch researcher was in Abidjan, with clear ethnic targeting during widespread acts of reprisal and intimidation.
“The hope of a new era following President Ouattara’s inauguration will fade fast unless these horrible abuses against pro-Gbagbo groups stop immediately,” said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The president has repeatedly promised credible, impartial investigations and prosecutions; now is the time to keep those promises.”
Ouattara’s Republican Forces of Côte d’Ivoire (Forces Républicaines de la Côte d’Ivoire, FRCI) killed at least 95 unarmed people in Abidjan during operations in late April and May, when they sealed off and searched areas formerly controlled by pro-Gbagbo militia, Human Rights Watch found. The majority of documented abuses occurred in the longtime pro-Gbagbo stronghold of Yopougon, the focus of the final battle in Abidjan. Most killings were point-blank executions of youth from ethnic groups generally aligned with Gbagbo, in what appeared to be collective punishment for these groups’ participation in Gbagbo’s militias.
One man described how Republican Forces soldiers killed his 21-year-old brother: “Two of them grabbed his legs, another two held his arms behind him, and a fifth one held his head,” he said. “Then a guy pulled out a knife and slit my brother’s throat. He was screaming. I saw his legs shaking after they’d slit his throat, the blood streaming down. As they were doing it, they said that they had to eliminate all of the [Young] Patriots that had caused all the problems in the country.”
Another woman who witnessed the May 8 killing of 18 youths found hiding in Yopougon was brutally raped by a Republican Forces soldier after being forced to load their vehicles with pillaged goods. On May 23, an elderly man in the same neighborhood saw Republican Forces execute his son, whom they accused of being a member of pro-Gbagbo militia.
Human Rights Watch also documented 54 extrajudicial executions in formal and informal detention sites, including the 16th and 37th Yopougon police stations and the GESCO oil and gas building now used as a Republican Forces base. On May 15, Human Rights Watch observed a body burning less than 30 meters from the 16th precinct police station. Several witnesses told Human Rights Watch the following day that it was the body of a captured militiaman who had been executed inside the police station grounds.
A Republican Forces soldier described the execution of 29 detainees in early May outside of the GESCO building. The soldier said Chérif Ousmane, the close ally of Prime Minister Guillaume Soro and longtime zone commander in the northern capital of Bouaké for Soro’s Forces Nouvelles rebel group that now comprise the majority of the Republican Forces, gave the execution order. Two other witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they saw Ousmane in a vehicle that disposed of the tortured and executed body of an infamous militia leader in the Yopougon sub-neighborhood of Koweit around May 5. Ousmane oversees the Republican Forces’ operations in Yopougon.
In addition to killings, Human Rights Watch interviewed young men who had been detained by the Republican Forces and then released, and documented the arbitrary detention and inhumane treatment of scores more young men – often arrested for no other apparent reason than their age and ethnic group. Nearly every former detainee described being struck repeatedly with guns, belts, rope, and fists to extract information on where weapons were hidden or to punish them for alleged participation in the Young Patriots, a pro-Gbagbo militia group. Several described torture, including forcibly removing teeth from one victim and placing a burning hot knife on another victim, then cutting him.
Human Rights Watch called on the Ouattara government to immediately ensure the humane treatment of anyone detained and to provide uninhibited access to detention sites for international monitors and members of the human rights division of the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (Opération des Nations Unies en Côte d’Ivoire, ONUCI).
Witnesses consistently identified the killers or abusers in detention as Republican Forces who descended on Abidjan from their northern bases, dressed in military uniforms and boots and often arriving in vehicles marked FRCI. These forces are overseen by Soro and Ouattara. Numerous witnesses and two soldiers who had participated in the killings said mid- and high-level commanders had been at or near the place where some killings took place.
Human Rights Watch called on the Ouattara government to place on immediate administrative leave, pending investigation, commanders against whom there is credible evidence of implication, either directly or by command responsibility, in killings, torture, or other severe abuse. At a minimum, this should include Chérif Ousmane and Ousmane Coulibaly for potential abuses in Yopougon and Captain Eddy Médy for his role in overseeing the western offensive that left hundreds of civilians dead.
Retreating pro-Gbagbo militia also left a bloody trail during the final battle for Abidjan, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch documented more than 220 killings perpetrated by pro-Gbagbo militia groups in the days and hours before being forced to abandon Abidjan. The day after Republican Forces seized Gbagbo, his militia went on a rampage in several areas of Yopougon, killing more than 80 people from northern Côte d’Ivoire and neighboring West African countries because of their presumed support for Ouattara.
A 65-year-old man there described how militiamen murdered five of his sons after breaking into his compound on April 12, the day after Gbagbo’s arrest. The bodies were buried in a small mass grave, among 14 such sites identified by Human Rights Watch in Yopougon alone. Human Rights Watch documented seven cases of sexual violence by militia, particularly in Yopougon, often accompanied by the execution of the woman’s husband.
No fewer than 3,000 civilians have been killed during the post-election crisis as a result of grave violations of international law by armed forces on both sides, Human Rights Watch said.
On May 19, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) declared his intention to open an investigation into crimes committed in Côte d’Ivoire. An ICC investigation could make an important contribution to ensuring accountability, but Human Rights Watch also urged Ouattara’s administration to hold fair domestic trials to ensure justice for victims and promote respect for the rule of law in the conflict-ravaged country.
Human Rights Watch presented its findings to Interior Minister Hamed Bakayoko, who promised to convene an emergency meeting with Soro and the principal Republican Forces commanders. He also said that the Ouattara government would not shield military and security forces from prosecutions for crimes they commit. The minister’s commitments were a positive sign and should be fulfilled swiftly, Human Rights Watch said.
“If President Ouattara is serious about bringing this decade of abuse to an end, he should immediately suspend and investigate the commanders responsible for this horrific abuse,” Dufka said. “Those implicated in grave crimes on both sides should be brought to justice.”
Killings and Other Abuses by Republican Forces During Patrols and Search Operations
Human Rights Watch documented 95 killings by Republican Forces soldiers against unarmed residents during cordon and search operations following the end of active fighting with pro-Gbagbo forces. Two were on May 23 and 24, following Ouattara’s inauguration on May 21. Human Rights Watch believes the total number of non-combatants killed to be much higher, as many witnesses, largely from ethnic groups linked to former President Gbagbo, were too terrified to talk or had fled Abidjan during or following the violence.
The vast majority of documented killings were in the Yopougon, a neighborhood with a large number of Gbagbo supporters and many former informal bases of militia groups that actively backed him. Yopougon appears to have been disproportionately targeted for reprisal killings by the Republican Forces, who meted out deadly collective punishment against young men from the Bété, Attié, Guéré, and Goro ethnic groups, which largely supported Gbagbo in the 2010 presidential elections.
Witnesses described how many youth were dragged out of their homes and executed, or shot while fleeing; others were taken into detention centers, formal and informal, where they were tortured and sometimes killed. The Republican Forces also killed older men accused of housing or assisting the militia. Numerous neighborhood residents told Human Rights Watch that the militia and mercenaries, who had for months targeted and killed pro-Ouattara groups, had largely fled prior to the Republican Forces’ takeover, so that those who remained were civilians, presumed to be Gbagbo supporters.
Yopougon, with a population of around 1 million, is divided into dozens of smaller sub-neighborhoods, or “quartiers.” While the Republican Forces committed violence throughout Yopougon – and to a lesser extent in Koumassi and Port BouÃ«t – more than 70 of the killings documented by Human Rights Watch occurred in the sub-neighborhoods of Koweit and Yaosseh.
Koweit was one of the last areas of Abidjan to fall, with fighting ending around May 3. In the days and weeks that followed, the Republican Forces conducted house-to-house searches in which males from pro-Gbagbo groups appear to have been targeted for abuse. Human Rights Watch also documented one case of rape. A 34-year-old woman from Yopougon Koweit described how she was brutally raped by a Republican Forces soldier on May 8, then saw the Republican Forces kill 18 youth.