- Côte d'Ivoire authorities are accused of protecting pro-government student groups responsible for numerous acts of violent and criminal behaviour, according to human rights groups. The groups, often described as "the mafia", is said to operate under full impunity.
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch in a 98-page report released yesterday, claims to document how these pro-government student groups are responsible for "politically and criminally motivated violence, including murder, assault, extortion, and rape." Attacks by the Student Federation of Côte d'Ivoire (FESCI) have often targeted perceived opponents of the ruling party, the Popular Ivorian Front (FPI).
Human Rights Watch urges the government to "take immediate steps to end impunity" for members of that group. "For years, the government of Côte d'Ivoire has demonstrated a sustained and partisan failure to investigate, prosecute or punish serious criminal offences by FESCI members," noted Corinne Dufka of Human Rights Watch. "The impunity enjoyed by groups like FESCI has got to stop now in order to create a climate conducive to peaceful elections," she added.
FESCI is said to be implicated in attacks on opposition ministers, magistrates, journalists, and human rights organisations, among others, the report outlines. According to interviews with victims and eyewitnesses, "the student group has killed, raped and severely beaten students perceived sympathetic to the northern-based rebellion or the political opposition," it details.
In addition, FESCI was routinely associated with "mafia"-type criminal behaviour including extortion and protection rackets involving merchants working in and around university and high school facilities. In tandem with other pro-government youth groups such as the Young Patriots, FESCI members were said to have been repeatedly mobilised since 2002 to stymie Côte d’Ivoire's peace process at key junctures to the benefit of the ruling FPI party.
Human Rights Watch had based its findings on a five-week investigation in Abidjan and Bouaké. The report describes FESCI's roots and actions, together with "the government's complacency, and at times complicity," in the violence and crimes perpetrated by FESCI members.
Police, professors, and students spoke of the unwillingness of state security forces to intervene in the face of criminal conduct by FESCI members. A police officer interviewed expressed frustration at what he perceived to be his inability to take action against FESCI-perpetrated abuses: "Today, FESCI does what it wants and nothing happens. They benefit from total impunity," he said.
Some FESCI members interviewed for the report appeared to revel in the impunity they enjoy. One student bragged that a simple phone call suffices in many instances to free a member of FESCI in trouble with the police: "If someone gets arrested, say for beating a taxi driver, we go en masse to the police station and announce that we are FESCI and free the person."
Current FESCI Secretary General Augustin Mian acknowledged "there have been violence and other problems" and pledged to create a "new, mature FESCI that turns its back on violence." Human Rights Watch, in a press release, welcomed Mr Mian's statements, but at the same time repeated its call on the Ivorian government "to take measures to end the impunity that allows violent activity by youth groups to continue undeterred."
"Putting an end to the violence that has become synonymous with university life in Côte d'Ivoire will require long-term commitment by the government, especially the ministries of higher education, interior, and justice," noted Ms Dufka.
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