Human Rights Watch says soldiers in Guinea are responsible for a series of armed robberies since the military seized power in a December coup following the death of long-time president Lansana Conte.

During the past three months, Human Rights Watch has documented 19 cases of armed robbery, extortion, rape, and intimidation against lawyers and judges by members of Guinea's military.

"They involve soldiers, heavily armed, usually wearing red berets, often, according to witnesses, intoxicated, going into houses and warehouses, clinics and businesses and robbing, sometimes during the day, sometimes at night in groups from five to 20," said Corrine Dufka, who runs the West Africa office for the U.S.-based human-rights group.

A new Human Rights Watch report says soldiers in Guinea have stolen cars, computers, generators, medicine, jewelry, cash, mobile phones, and large amounts of wholesale and retail merchandise.

When victims of those crimes go to the police, Dufka says the police tell them they are no longer authorized to investigate crimes involving members of the military. "It is the responsibility of the police and the gendarmerie to investigate, and then of course the judicial system to hold that person to account. What appears to be happening in Guinea and what we characterize as a worrying development is the apparent marginalization of the police force," he said.

Army Captain Moussa Camara took power in December, suspending the constitution and dismissing the civilian government within hours of President Conte's death. Members of Guinea's ruling military council say it is common criminals dressed as soldiers who are committing these armed robberies.

But Dufka says it is unlikely that common criminals would operate in daylight in convoys of vehicles without license plates. She says one of the victims who had a vehicle stolen by a member of the military later saw that same soldier driving the vehicle into a military base.

With Captain Camara planning new elections later this year, Human Rights Watch says he must first end this cycle of impunity among the military. "That does not bode well for elections, especially in Guinea where you have not historically had a separation between military and political life," she said.

The military government last month detained three former mining ministers as part of an anti-corruption drive. Suspects are questioned, sometimes on television, without legal representation. Dufka says fighting corruption must not come at the cost of due process.

"We welcome the fact that the CNDD has recognized the very destructive role that corruption and drug trafficking has played in undermining the rights of ordinary Guineans. We think that is a very important effort that the CNDD is making. However, we believe that that effort must take place within the context of the rule of law. They cannot break the rule of law in an effort to create the rule of law," she said.

Human Rights Watch says Guinea's military rulers must allow the judiciary to act independently and prosecute soldiers implicated in crimes.