Freedom in the World
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It looked like the beginning of political reconciliation in May 2001 when President Lansana Conte pardoned the country's main opposition leader, Alpha Conde. A former presidential candidate, Conde had served half of a five-year sentence on sedition charges stemming from a trial that international observers said was unfair. However, six months after the pardon, the Conte government held a referendum on extending presidential terms from five to seven years, allowing for unlimited terms in office, and eliminating presidential age limits. The provisions in the referendum were approved in a flawed vote that was boycotted by members of the opposition, despite government claims of a turnout of nearly 90 percent. There is little doubt that Conte will run for president again when his current term expires in 2003. Violence preceded the November referendum when security forces forcibly prevented opposition demonstrations and meetings, and detained dozens of opposition members.
Under Ahmed Sekou Toure, Guinea declared independence from France in 1958. Alone among France's many African colonies, it rejected the domination of continued close ties with France. Paris retaliated quickly, removing or destroying all "colonial property" and enforcing an unofficial but devastating economic boycott. Sekou Toure's one-party rule became highly repressive, and Guinea was increasingly impoverished under his Soviet-style economic policies. Lansana Conte seized power in a 1984 coup and was nearly toppled by a 1996 army mutiny. Amidst general looting in Conakry, he rallied loyal troops and reestablished his rule.
Serious human rights abuses continued to be perpetrated against Liberian and Sierra Leonean refugees residing in Guinea in 2001. Violations included arbitrary detention by Guinean authorities and vigilantes, as well as beating, torture, and sexual assault. However, aid agencies during the year successfully moved refugees further inland for protection from cross-border incursions from Liberia and Sierra Leone. Fighting had abated towards the end of 2001.
Guinea's economy has suffered from a world drop in the price of bauxite. The country is the world's second largest producer of the mineral and is also rich in gold, diamonds, and iron ore.
The Guinean people's constitutional right to freely elect their government is not yet respected in practice. Guinean politics and parties are largely defined along ethnic lines. Electoral manipulation and fraud in the 1993 presidential polls made a mockery of the vote. Lansana Conte was returned to office in a December 1998 presidential election that lacked credible opposition, as state patronage and media strongly backed the incumbent. His reelection to another five-year term, with 54 percent of about 2.7 million votes reported, was unconvincing, although broad manipulation of the electoral process and opposition disunity probably made more blatant forms of vote rigging unnecessary. The Higher Council on Electoral Affairs was neither autonomous nor powerful enough to level the electoral landscape, although the polls were an improvement over past elections. Hundreds of people, however, were arrested after the election, including the official third-place finisher, Alpha Conde.
The June 1995 national assembly elections were more open. A total of eight opposition parties won just enough seats to deny the ruling Progress and Unity Party the two-thirds majority required to enact constitutional changes; but the ruling party's share of seats in the 114-member assembly was probably fraudulently inflated far above the proportion of votes it received. The president retains decree power that could eviscerate the parliamentary process. Despite cumbersome requirements for official recognition of political parties, about 50 are recognized. New legislative elections have been postponed indefinitely because of insecurity in the country. There was a low turnout in the June 2000 municipal elections. The opposition claimed fraud, and protests followed. The November 2001 referendum not only allowed Conde to potentially extend his presidential term indefinitely, it also granted him the power to appoint local officials and supreme court judges.
While nominally independent, the judicial system remains infected by corruption, nepotism, ethnic bias, and political interference, and lacks resources and training. Minor civil cases are often handled by traditional ethnic-based courts. Arbitrary arrests and detention are common, and persistent maltreatment and torture of detainees is reported. Prison conditions are harsh and sometimes life threatening.
Several statutes restrict freedom of association and assembly in apparent contravention of constitutional guarantees. The government may ban any gathering that "threatens national unity." Several human rights groups and many nongovernmental groups operate openly.
The government has wide powers to bar any communications that insult the president or disturb the peace. All broadcasting, as well as the country's largest and only daily newspaper, are state-controlled, and offer little coverage of the opposition and scant criticism of government policy. The print media have little impact in rural areas, where incomes are low and illiteracy is high. Several weekly newspapers in Conakry offer sharp criticism of the government despite frequent harassment. A restrictive press law allows the government to censor or shutter publications on broad and ill-defined bases. Defamation and slander are considered criminal offenses. Two journalists for the independent newspapers L'Observateur and the Nouvel Observateur were jailed in 2001.
Constitutionally protected religious rights are respected in practice, although the main body representing the country's Muslims, who constitute more than 80 percent of the population, is government controlled.
Women have far fewer educational and employment opportunities than men, and many societal customs discriminate against women. Constitutionally protected women's rights are often unrealized. Violence against women is said to be prevalent. Spousal abuse is a criminal offense, but security forces rarely intervene in domestic matters. Female genital mutilation is illegal; women's groups are working to eradicate the practice, but it is still widely carried out.
The constitution provides for the right to form and join unions. However, about 80 percent of Guinea's seven million people are subsistence farmers. Only a very small formal sector exists, and about 160,000 workers are unionized. Several labor confederations compete in this small market and have the right to bargain collectively.