Human Rights Watch has issued this depressing report on roadside extortion by security forces in Côte d'Ivoire. It offers these comments on the administration of justice by the military court:
Ultimately, deterring checkpoint extortion will require criminal sanctions against violators, particularly commanders and officers who are implicated. The military justice system, however, which has jurisdiction over the army, police, and gendarmes, is severely under-resourced, with only one military tribunal in Abidjan for the whole country. The tribunal, which is focusing on cases related to the post-election crisis, had by July failed to adjudicate any of the dozens of extortion cases the anti-racket unit had referred to it in 2015.
Furthermore, several legal experts said there was a need for comprehensive reform of the military justice system. They cited in particular the need to address the tribunal’s lack of independence from the ministers of interior and defense, who must give permission before a prosecution or trial can begin.
The military tribunal’s jurisdiction is also currently too broad. Under the Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Fair Trial and Legal Assistance in Africa, issued by the African Commission on Human & Peoples’ Rights, the jurisdiction of military courts should be limited to military personnel and to strictly military issues and should not extend to the police.
In the absence of comprehensive reform of the military justice system, and given the limited resources of the anti-racket unit and military tribunal, they should consider targeting their investigations and prosecutions against those most responsible for extortion, particularly high and mid-ranking commanders. The head of the military tribunal, Commissioner Ange Kessy, told Human Rights Watch that commanders implicated in extortion would be prosecuted: “Commanders will be tried if their agents commit extortion. It’s not possible that they don’t know what their troops are doing. A good leader knows what his troops are doing.”
So far, however, the anti-racket unit has not had success in convincing those caught at checkpoints to inform on their superiors, with an officer in the anti-racket unit saying, “the racketeers we catch will never implicate anyone higher.” The officer attributes this to “a climate of impunity,” in which, “agents think that, even if they say something, their leaders will never be punished.” The anti-racket unit is instead compiling reports on commanders who repeatedly fail to sanction instances of extortion within their units, and hopes that this will ultimately result in disciplinary action against those commanders.Here are HRW's recommendations:
To the Prime Minister’s Office and Ministries of Interior and Defense:
- Ensure transparent investigations of – and where evidence emerges, disciplinary measures against – commanders in areas in which checkpoint extortion is widespread for their failure to investigate and punish troops involved in extortion;
- In conjunction with the anti-racket unit, circulate and make public guidance to police, gendarmes, and FRCI officers on the conditions that must be fulfilled for checkpoints set up for security purposes to be legal under Ivorian law;
- Increase the resources of the anti-racket unit to enable it to develop a larger presence in western Côte d’Ivoire, including through monthly missions to Bloléquin, Guiglo, and Tai, as well as other areas of the country in which extortion is pervasive;
- Make clear that funding for the anti-racket unit, at an increased level, is secure for a minimum of five years;
- Prioritize a comprehensive reform of the military justice system to increase the independence, fairness, and efficiency of military courts; and
To the Ivorian National Assembly:
- Explain publicly that residency papers obtained by immigrants in one part of the country are valid nationwide.
- Create a special technical committee responsible for examining the continued problem of checkpoint extortion by the security forces; and;
To the Anti-Racket Unit:
- Hold public hearings on security force extortion, and call to testify the leadership of the anti-racket unit and military tribunal, senior police, gendarmes, and FRCI and local government officials and community leaders from areas in which extortion is pervasive.
- Investigate commanders who are implicated in or who facilitate extortion and refer perpetrators for prosecution;
- Work with the military tribunal and civilian justice system to formulate separate cooperation protocols that describe how extortion cases, particularly those targeting commanders, should be investigated and prosecuted;
- Ensure the protocol discusses, in particular, how to encourage and protect whistleblowers;
- Increase outreach activities in western Côte d’Ivoire, particularly in the areas of Bloléquin, Guiglo, and Tai, to ensure victims of extortion are aware that they can report incidents to the unit; and
To the civilian and military justice systems:
- Establish regular contact with leaders of communities from neighboring countries to determine where there are problems with discriminatory targeting for extortion and investigate these concerns promptly.
To Côte d’Ivoire’s international partners:
- Ensure that extortion cases are investigated and fairly adjudicated in a timely manner.
- Provide technical assistance to the anti-racket unit, military tribunal, and civilian justice system on how to investigate and prosecute extortion cases, particularly those targeting commanders; and
- Include training on whistleblower protection.