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Beating in Guinea Sparks Lawyers Strike

Lawyers in Guinea are on strike after an attorney was allegedly beaten by security forces. Lawyers and human rights activists say police and military forces in Guinea have a long-standing tradition of impunity and continue to abuse their positions.

Joachim Gbilimou was driving home from work Sunday afternoon when he says he was stopped by security forces in Conakry. When Gbilimou asked authorities why they were stopping him, he says they started beating him with guns, resulting in bruises and cuts.

After complaining to a top military commander, the attorney general and the country's prime minister, lawyers said they did not receive an adequate explanation for the attack. So they went on strike. Ninety percent of the country's lawyers work in Conakry, so the strike has brought the country's justice system to a halt.

Mohamed Traoré, secretary-general of the Guinean Lawyers Council, says that everyday Guineans see citizens victimized by elements of the security forces, but those forces should never have immunity to physically attack citizens.

The lawyers want the ruling military council to declare this behavior unacceptable. There was no immediate public statement from authorities.

This is not the first time that abuses of power by the police and military forces have prompted Guinean lawyers to strike. In November of 2007, they refused to work in protest of the arrest and rough treatment of attorney Mohamed Lamine Doumbia.

Human rights officials say continuing abuse by security forces undermine pledges made by the country's new military ruler Captain Moussa Camara to restore democratic order.

Corinne Dufka is the West Africa Regional Director for Human Rights Watch. Though Captain Camara has promised change, she says it's business as usual for security forces, known as the red berets.

"If this new government is serious about improving the lives of ordinary Guineans then they need to begin to address without delay the problem of impunity in the military, and they could start by bringing under control these members of red berets and others who are perpetrating these kinds of attacks against ordinary Guineans, including the attack against this lawyer this weekend. Clearing they are not getting that message," said Dufka.

Captain Camara took power in December within hours of the death of long-time president Lansana Conte. The African Union and the Economic Community of West African states suspended Guinea over the coup. Captain Camara has appointed a civilian prime minister and says his ruling military council will organize presidential and legislative elections later this year.

Excessive use of force is not the only problem associated with the red berets. Dufka was recently in Conakry and documented several cases of extortion and outright theft by members of the red beret security forces.

"The seemingly good intentions of this new government are being put to the test by the behavior of the red berets and other members of the security forces," he said.

The lawyers say they will suspend their two-day strike Thursday to see whether their demands have been met. If they have not been, the strike is expected to resume on Friday.