ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — The victims were rounded up at their homes, at work or while out having drinks. Taken without explanation to military camps overflowing with prisoners, they were deprived of food and beaten routinely with belts, clubs and guns and released only after their families paid substantial sums of money.
A report issued Monday by New York-based Human Rights Watch accuses Ivory Coast's military of undertaking a swift, brutal and illegal campaign of arbitrary arrest and detention in response to some of the most significant violence since last year's election crisis.
The rights group warned that such tactics could exacerbate divisions in a country where reconciliation efforts have all but stalled, making the military vulnerable to further attacks.
"The security threats to Ivory Coast are real, but widespread abuses by the military will fuel - rather than end - them," said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher for HRW. "The government should quickly show the determination to bring to account the soldiers responsible for torture, inhuman treatment and criminality."
Ivory Coast is still struggling to move past last year's postelection violence, which claimed at least 3,000 lives after ex-President Laurent Gbagbo refused to concede defeat in the November 2010 election. The conflict dragged on for five months, with Gbagbo stubbornly refusing to leave the presidential palace, forcing now-President Alassane Ouattara to hole up inside a U.N.-guarded hotel.
Since early August, unknown gunmen have struck military positions throughout the country in about 10 attacks, raising fears of renewed instability. Ouattara's government has blamed the attacks on Gbagbo allies in exile in Ghana and Liberia - allegations the rights group describes as "credible."
But the 73-page report says the military, known as the Republican Forces of Ivory Coast, seems to have implicated all perceived Gbagbo supporters in the recent violence, arresting hundreds without presenting evidence or allowing formal charges to be brought.
The report draws primarily from abuses documented at three camps - two in Abidjan and one in Dabou, a town about 50 kilometers ( 31 miles) west of Abidjan where military positions were attacked in August.
One victim, a low-level official for Gbagbo's political party, told The Associated Press that soldiers arrested him at his office on Aug. 8, two days after gunmen struck one of the country's most important military bases in Abidjan, killing six soldiers. He was taken to the military police base in the commercial capital's Adjame neighborhood, where Human Rights Watch documented five cases of torture.
"They took me with my driver to this camp, and when we arrived they asked us to take off our clothes and enter the cell," said the ex-detainee, who insisted on anonymity for fear of reprisals. "They accused us of participating in the Aug. 6 attack (at the military base). I said, 'I am not a soldier. How could I attack the camp?' They said, 'It doesn't matter, you are a pro-Gbagbo, and a pro-Gbagbo is naturally involved in the attacks."
He went on to describe how soldiers beat detainees with sticks, belts and other objects in a bid to extract confessions.
Victims interviewed by HRW decried "horrible conditions" at the Adjame camp, saying detainees were sometimes "forced as punishment to stay in a room full of excrement." The lack of food and water drove some detainees "delirious," the report states.
Matt Wells, who researched the report, said abuses by the military were symptomatic of a lack of accountability that predates the postelection violence. The rights group has previously implicated military commanders in a host of grave crimes committed during the conflict, though no pro-Ouattara fighters have been arrested or investigated.
"Despite its promises, the Ouattara government has failed to tackle the culture of impunity among the Republican Forces, particularly at the command level," Wells said. "In response particularly to these findings of torture, it's crucial that the government quickly open an investigation, find those who were involved and bring them to justice."
In a written response to HRW, Gnenema Coulibaly, who was human rights minister before Ouattara dissolved his cabinet last week, said allegations of illegal acts on the part of the military would be investigated. However, he defended the government's failure to formally charge detainees and its refusal to allow free and independent monitoring of detention facilities, citing institutional constraints and security concerns.