A United Nations commission of inquiry has opened its investigation into the killing of opposition protesters in Guinea. Guinea's military government is promising to cooperate fully with the inquiry into September's violence.
The UN commission and its investigators are in Conakry to find out what happened when soldiers opened fire on opposition demonstrators September 28th.
Human rights groups in Guinea say at least 157 people were killed protesting the expected presidential candidacy of military ruler Captain Moussa Camara. The military government says 57 people were killed, most in the crush of people fleeing the main sports stadium.
Captain Camara has expressed his "profound sympathy" for the families of those killed. But because he was not at the stadium, he says he is not responsible for the violence. Instead, he blames his political opponents and what he calls "uncontrollable elements" of the military.
The UN commission is working with the Guinean Organization of Human Rights, which has recorded 100 cases of rape on September 28, including a woman who spoke at the human rights headquarters before meeting with UN investigators.
She says she was raped by Red Berets of the presidential guard. After the rape, she says they raped her again with the barrel of a gun. Since then, she can not sit properly because she is still torn. She says nothing serious has been done to care for those who survived.
She says some of her friends were raped by men wearing red bandanas with cowry shells, red t-shirts, and striped pants. She says those men came to the stadium in a bus with long knives, hatchets, and bows and arrows. She says many of the women who were raped recognized their attackers, and she can give some of their names.
Corrine Dufka, who heads investigations in West Africa for the US-based Human Rights Watch, says protecting the identity of witnesses will be one of the UN commission's biggest challenges.
"In fact, they can't ensure the security of those they are talking to. They can take measures to try to hide their identity and protect them," said Dufka. "But ultimately once they are gone, once they have packed up and left and have made their inquiry, then those witnesses are going to be vulnerable."
Dufka says true witness protection must have a state component, usually a witness-protection unit within the police or ministry of justice to ensure the safety of witnesses.
"Obviously that is not the case, so I think the protection of witnesses is going to be a key issue here," said Dufka.
Captain Camara and Guinea's ruling military council have pledged to cooperate fully with the UN investigation. Dufka says that means not interfering with commission members or following them to see who they are interviewing.
"That means allowing them access into places that could be mass grave sites, that could be headquarters," she said. "That means giving them access to individuals who might have direct information about the inquiry. It also means giving them access to records that might shed some light on what happened."
Dufka says if mass graves are discovered, the military must allow UN forensic teams to exhume those bodies. While the commission's goals are to determine what happened, its recommendations will no doubt include holding accountable those responsible for the violence. In Guinea, Dufka says that is not so easy.
"The problem is that in Guinea you have a very weak judicial system which is plagued by numerous different deficiencies including corruption, lack of personnel, and now since the CNDD came to power, with another challenge which is the undue-influence by members of the military over the judicial system. So that means there is a justice vacuum in Guinea," said Dufka.
Commission members Mohamed Bedaoui, Francoise Kayiramirwa and Pramila Patten met with Captain Camara. They will be in Guinea until next Friday.