New York — Forces loyal to Ivorian President Alessane Ouattara have carried out indiscriminate torture, rape, extrajudicial killings, and other acts of violence and abuse, according to an investigation by Human Rights Watch.
Purportedly carried out in retaliation against members of forces loyal to former president Laurent Gbagbo, these abuses and killings were found instead to have been carried out against civilians or unarmed people and were often based upon one’s ethnic affiliation or which presidential candidate the victim supposedly backed.
In a report released Thursday, Human Rights Watch said that since mid-April, when armed forces loyal to Ouattara, known as the Republican Forces, managed to gain control of the capital city of Abidjan, these forces have killed at least 149 of Gbagbo’s “real or perceived” supporters.
The majority of the killings documented by Human Rights Watch were in the Yopougon neighbourhood of Abidjan, which is known as a Gbagbo stronghold.
Following Ouattara’s victory in the Ivorian presidential elections last November, former president Gbagbo refused to step down. Violent clashes and fighting ensued, and forces loyal to both Ouattara and Gbagbo continued the abuses and killings even after Gbagbo was arrested on Apr. 11.
“Some of the abuses actually took place after Gbagbo was arrested,” Rona Piligal, deputy director of the Africa Division at Human Rights Watch, told IPS. “Some of the abuses took place… after Ouattara was inaugurated.”
To her knowledge, the killings and abuses have continued through last week.
Human Rights Watch has called for the Ouattara government to place commanders against whom there is credible evidence of implication in killings, torture, or other severe abuse on immediate administrative leave, pending investigation.
Brutality on both sides
The report drew on over 130 interviews with victims of and witnesses to the violence. In comparison to the 149 killed by pro-Ouattara forces, forces loyal to Gbagbo killed at least 220 people before and after Gbagbo’s April arrest.
“They turned to me and asked my ethnic group,” recounted one victim in the report. “They then came back to me and said I was militia. They beat me with their guns, with their fists. They kept demanding that I say that I was militia, that they’d only stop if I said so… It didn’t seem to make sense who they killed and who they took,” he added.
Elsewhere in the report, one member of the Republican Forces, who was present at the execution of detainees, described what he had witnessed, as well as the nonexistent selection process for choosing victims.
“I promise you that no one can say what crime these men had committed. They were arrested simply because they had an appearance that showed them as suspects of either being militiamen or those that tell the militia about our movements,” he said.
In addition to indiscriminate violence and executions, other accounts shared horrific tales of rape, torture, looting, arbitrary detainments, and other forms of inhumane treatment, by forces loyal to both sides.
Particularly alarming is the fact that they were indiscriminate in their abuse, and that civilians became victims. In Yopougon, “there were civilians who were targeted simply because that was an area where Gbagbo had drawn support,” Peligal told IPS. “But as it turns out, many of the militias that had been based in Yopougon had already left.”
Ultimately, “it was civilians that paid the price for abuses committed by others,” she said.
Political implicationsPresident Ouattara’s administration has pledged to investigate the violence and abuses, and to prosecute those responsible, said Peligal. Still, “We haven’t yet seen any action on their part,” she added.
Currently, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court is conducting an investigation into the violence, and the United Nations is conducting an inquiry.
Whether Ouattara will live up to his promises remains to be seen, but keeping those promises will be crucial for his presidency and the coming months in Cote d’Ivoire.
Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in the report, “The hope of a new era following President Ouattara’s inauguration will fade fast unless these horrible abuses against pro-Gbagbo groups stop immediately”, and Ouattara keeps his promises of investigating the abuses and prosecuting those responsible.