Mali and Burkina Faso military operations to counter the growing presence of Islamist armed groups in central Mali have resulted in serious human rights violations. Since late 2016, Malian forces have committed extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary arrests against men accused of supporting Islamist armed groups, while a June 2017 cross-border operation by Burkinabe forces left two suspects dead.
Human Rights Watch documented three common graves believed to contain the remains of at least 14 men executed after being detained by Malian soldiers since December. On several occasions, Malian forces severely beat, burned, and threatened dozens of men accused of supporting the Islamist armed groups. Human Rights Watch also documented 27 cases of enforced disappearance, in which the Malian government provided families no information on missing relatives who had been detained.
“The skewed logic of torturing, killing, and ‘disappearing’ people in the name of security only fuels Mali’s growing cycle of violence and abuse,” said Corinne Dufka, Sahel director at Human Rights Watch. “The Malian and Burkinabe governments should rein in abusive units and prosecute those responsible.”
The abuses, which occurred between late 2016 and July 2017 during operations in Mopti region, and to a lesser extent in Ségou region, were documented during a 10-day research mission to Mali in July and by phone interviews in August. Human Rights Watch interviewed 48 victims of abuses and witnesses, in addition to community leaders from the ethnic Peuhl, Dogon, and Bambara communities; former detainees; local government, security and justice officials; and foreign diplomats.
Family members provided Human Rights Watch lists of the men believed to be buried in three common graves, all in the Mopti region. One contains the remains of five men allegedly killed on December 19, 2016; the second the remains of three men detained on January 21, 2017; and the third the remains of at least six men detained in early May 2017.
Two traders detained in June in Boni, Mopti region, described being bound, severely beaten, and burned after soldiers held their heads close to the exhaust pipe of a military truck. Witnesses said that 10 men were beaten and subjected to a mock execution, in which Malian soldiers threatened to burn them alive.
Family members and witnesses of those forcibly disappeared by Malian security forces said that they had learned through informal sources that several of the 27 men were thought to have been killed in custody, while others were believed to be held unlawfully by the Malian General Directorate of State Security (Direction générale de la sécurité d’État, DGSE), the national intelligence agency.
In June 2017, Burkinabe soldiers detained some 70 men from hamlets in Mali near the border, accusing them of supporting the Islamist armed group Ansaroul Islam. The soldiers allegedly burned property, administered severe beatings – which led to the deaths of two detainees – and brought more than 40 men across the border to Burkina Faso for further interrogation.
Human Rights Watch also documented serious abuses by Islamist armed groups in central Mali during the same period, including summary executions of civilians and Malian army soldiers, destruction of schools, and recruitment and use of children as soldiers. Increasing intercommunal violence near Koro, in Mopti region, has raised concerns of more widespread abuses. Human Rights Watch’s findings on these abuses will be published in a future report.
An elder from the Mondoro administrative area described how members of his community were suffering from abuses perpetrated by both sides: “In April the jihadists showed up, urging unemployed youth to join them, and a few weeks later they murdered a local leader and beheaded a local man they said was an army informant. In May and June, soldiers from Mali and Burkina Faso captured dozens of people… 17 members of my community have disappeared but people are terrified to talk about it. The behavior of both armies has strengthened the jihadist movement. Some young people have joined them after seeing their fathers tortured and brothers go missing.”
All parties to Mali’s armed conflict are bound by Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and other treaty and customary laws of war, which provide for the humane treatment of captured combatants and civilians in custody. Individuals who deliberately commit serious violations of the laws of war, including summary executions and torture, may be prosecuted for war crimes. Mali is a party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
Domestic and international human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have consistently raised their concerns with the Malian governmentthrough letters, reports, and meetings with high-level government officials. The media has also reported on some of these cases. Nevertheless, neither the military nor civilian justice systems have made a serious effort to investigate these alleged abuses and hold the responsible soldiers and officers to account.
The Malian and Burkinabe governments should promptly investigate and prosecute members of the security forces implicated in serious rights violations. The Malian government should cease holding suspects in unauthorized detention facilities, notably at the DGSE; ensure government gendarmes fulfill their mandated role of provost marshal by accompanying the Malian army on all operations; and ensure that security forces abide by international humanitarian and human rights law.
“The Malian government’s failure to hold its security forces to account has emboldened abusive soldiers to commit further grievous crimes,” Dufka said. “To stop the erosion of public confidence in the security forces and provide justice for victims, the government needs to investigate and punish serious rights violations.”
In 2012, Mali’s northern regions fell to separatist ethnic Tuareg and Al-Qaeda-linked armed groups. The French-led military intervention in 2013 and the June 2015 peace agreement between the government and several armed groups resulted in some stability in the north.
However, since 2015, Islamist armed group activity and abuses have spread into central Mali. Groups linked to Al Qaeda have attacked army bases and police and gendarme posts; executed about 50 accused army informants and officials, including mayors and local administrators; closed schools; and increasingly imposed harsh restrictions based on their interpretation of Islam.
In the first half of 2017, the Malian Armed Forces (Forces Armées Maliennes, FAMA) carried out a series of operations on their own and in collaboration with French and Burkinabe forces. Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger agreed in January to establish a regional joint task force to combat rising insecurity in the area where the three share borders.
In July, Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad launched a multinational counterterrorism military force, known as the G5 Sahel Joint Force (Force conjointe du G5 Sahel, or FC-G5S), to combat Islamist armed groups in the region. The G5 force will coordinate their operations with the 4,000 French troops and 12,000 United Nations peacekeeping troops already in Mali.
Malian Security Force Violations
Soldiers and national guardsmen operating in or around the towns of Mondoro, Boni, Sévaré, and Boulekessi, in Mopti region, and Diabaly and Nampala, in Ségou region, were implicated in arbitrary arrests, torture, summary executions, and enforced disappearances. Some appeared to be in retaliation after armed Islamists attacked or killed government soldiers. As has been the case since 2012, most detainees said the abuse stopped after they were handed over to government gendarmes, who often provided medical care. Since at least 2013, soldiers based in all of the aforementioned towns have been implicated in similarly serious abuses. Virtually none of these security force abuses have been investigated.
Human Rights Watch documented the detention of 114 men by Malian security forces in central Mali between December 2016 and June 2017. The detainees, the vast majority of whom were ethnic Peuhl, were held for their suspected support for Islamist armed groups.
Most were released because of insufficient evidence after their cases were reviewed by a judge working with the Bamako-based Special Judicial Cell to Combat Terrorism and Transnational Organized Crime, which is mandated to review and adjudicate all cases involving alleged crimes by Islamist armed groups.
Lawyers, judges, and community leaders consistently told Human Rights Watch that they believed the evidentiary basis for many detentions, including many of those documented in this report, is weak and sometimes based on false intelligence provided by people to settle personal scores.
Torture and Ill-Treatment
Human Rights Watch documented dozens of cases of torture and other ill-treatment committed by Malian army soldiers during interrogations in the first few days after detention, even though soldiers are not authorized to interrogate detainees. The abuse took place in army bases, at bush camps, and at checkpoints.
The detainees, many of whom had scars and showed visible signs of torture, told Human Rights Watch that they had been hogtied; pummeled with fists, gun butts, iron bars, and wood clubs; lashed with belts; kicked; burned; and repeatedly threatened with death. One suffered broken ribs, a few lost teeth, and several said they had been hospitalized to treat their injuries. They said they were routinely denied food, water, and medical care.Most of those who spoke to Human Rights Watch described being bound at the wrists and ankles with cords or wire during their detention. Many had open wounds or scars from these restraints, which had cut through their flesh.Malian army and National Guard units based in and around Boni, 220 kilometers from the garrison town of Sévaré in Mopti region, were extensively linked to torture. For instance, on June 23, soldiers arrested and tortured three traders – two Malians and one Burkinabe – whom they accused of supporting armed Islamists who had attacked the gendarme post in Boni the previous day. The arrests appeared arbitrary: two of the traders told Human Rights Watch that soldiers searched their homes, found no weapons, and, after several hours of abuse, freed them without further questioning. One trader, who lost two teeth from the beatings, said:
The FAMA arrested me at the market where I was selling my wares – they didn’t tell me why. At their camp, they said, “We brought you here to kill you.” They took my money and my watch and over the next two hours we were kicked and beaten with batons and gun butts. They picked me up and slammed my head against a truck two times… two of my teeth came out, and two are now loose. I lost consciousness and blood was pouring from my mouth. They picked up the Burkinabe driver and beat his head against the ground… he was bad off. He’s in the hospital in Djibo [Burkina Faso].
This man and another alleged that the soldiers burned them with the exhaust pipe of a vehicle. The second said:
They accused us of selling things to the jihadists. After being beaten, I heard the vroom vroom of a vehicle. They picked me up and held my head to the exhaust pipe of a big truck until my head was on fire. A soldier finally said, “Enough now, stop…. they could die.” Later, the soldiers took us to the gendarme post, but when they [gendarmes] mounted the truck and saw the state we were in – bleeding from the mouth, on the head, swollen, unable to walk – they got angry at the soldiers and refused to take us. The gendarmes and FAMA really yelled at each other… the gendarmes told the FAMA to take us to the hospital, which the soldiers did.
Two other men said that on June 22 or 23, they were beaten and one was burned by soldiers based in the military camp at Diabaly, 140 kilometers from Ségou. “They accused me of being involved with the jihadists,” said one man. “I was held for three nights. On the final night, they beat me on my back, and kicked me with their boots. I’m not sure how long it lasted – I was beaten until I lost consciousness. The next day, they dripped burning plastic all over my shoulder and back.”This man said a second detainee was also severely beaten: “As I was being taken from their camp, I met another man who had been so badly beaten he could not stand up.” After the soldier brought the victims to the gendarmerie in nearby Niono for questioning, the gendarme commander became visibly angry. “He told the army officer he should pay for our medical treatment… but I said, ‘No, forget it… I just want my freedom,’” the man said. After investigating the allegations, the gendarmes released the man.On May 8, soldiers detained 10 men, ages 19 to about 50, from several hamlets near Boni. All 10 were severely beaten and told they would be shot or burned alive. According to a community elder who provided care to the men once they had been transferred to Bamako, “Days after their arrest, their hands, feet and heads were still swollen; every one of them had bruises or scars; a few couldn’t sit down because of how violently they were beaten.” After seeing a judge in Bamako in late May, at least eight were released. One of the men described their ordeal:
The soldiers found me near the well. They accused me of being with AQIM [Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb], asked for my gun and said, “Where are the jihadists?” They stole 143,000 CFA [US$260] and took me away with six others. It was a huge operation – they drove a while, then they put us in a hole on the road created by a land mine explosion earlier this year. They argued about whether or not to kill us there. “Should we kill them now?” said one. “Go grab the shovels,” said another. “No, they’ll find out in Bamako.” Some of our brothers are buried in common graves in Issèye and Yirima, so we were sure we would follow them.
Later they put us into another hole – over a meter deep – near the Boni army checkpoint. In the hole were three other men, all blindfolded, bloody and swollen. They blindfolded us and bound our hands, and they made us, too, lie down in the burning sun as the abuse started. They beat us with iron bars, kicked us repeatedly and insulted our parents. It went on for hours… they spilled liquid on us, saying it was gasoline, that they would burn us alive. They didn’t even ask us questions, just accused us of being jihadists. We were desperately thirsty after hours in the sun, which in May is hotter than fire itself, but they refused.
We went two days without eating and only got medical care once we reached Bamako. In total we spent 26 days in custody. Even now, months after the abuse, I’m still suffering… even yesterday I tried to work but I just couldn’t.
Human Rights Watch documented a few cases in which army officers intervened to stop abuse being meted out by their subordinates. A witness described one such case from March involving soldiers from Ténenkou, Mopti region:
It happened at an army checkpoint a few kilometers from town. The soldiers were beating the man, who was around 35, then took paper, set it alight and burned his belly. About 30 minutes later, an officer arrived, asking angrily, “Why are you doing this?” The soldiers said they’d been tipped off that the man was selling weapons to the jihadists; that he had been found with a lot of cash. The man explained that he was an animal trader and had just sold some of his cows. The chief ordered the soldiers to stop the abuse and take him to the hospital for treatment.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 18 men and four boys, ages 14 to 17, who alleged being mistreated by soldiers after their arrest in May from villages near Mali’s border with Burkina Faso. Two months later, nearly all showed visible scarring around the wrists and ankles; the hands of two men were still bandaged, while six had scabs and scars from what appeared to be deep gashes on their wrists. They said their hands were tied for over two days, including during the long journey from central Mali to Bamako. One man had visible scars around his throat, saying it was from “when I was attached within the pickup for hours on the bumpy road, with a cord around my throat… they only removed it after I passed out.” Ten of these were initially detained in a joint operation involving the Malian army and French forces. “When the French were there, they made us lie down while they searched our houses, but didn’t tie or beat us; the French took pictures of us,” said one.The men said abuse started the following day, after the French and a Malian gendarme had left the area and the detainees were taken to Douna, 24 kilometers away from their villages. “As we got out of the truck, they threw us to the ground and beat us with guns,” one said. “When we begged for water, the soldiers forced the water into my nose, to make me feel like I was drowning.” Another detainee described how a soldier put his head in a chokehold and said, “We will cut your throat like a sheep.” Two other men said they had been stabbed in the shoulder with a small knife.Human Rights Watch also documented the death of a 50-year-old man after he had been severely beaten by Malian soldiers in May. Three witnesses said the man died at the hospital in Sévaré. According to one witness:
At 6 p.m., the army brought five men they had detained to the gendarmerie in Sévaré. They were in bad shape and really suffering; their faces were swollen; they were bleeding. The eldest of them couldn’t move and had to be carried into the cell. A few hours later, I heard people saying, “Give him water, he needs to drink, hurry…” But he couldn’t… he was dying. He was carried out of the cell at night… We learned from nurses that he died in hospital a few hours later. They said his body was covered with marks. Human Rights Watch documented one case of severe mistreatment by government gendarmes. In late March 2017, gendarmes in Sévaré allegedly beat seven men from a village near Djenné, including a Quranic teacher. “During the night, a few of the gendarmes came into our cell and kicked and beat us. One man broke a few ribs and two others bled from their noses,” one detainee said.
Summary Executions and Common Graves
Human Rights Watch documented the existence of three common graves which witnesses and family members allege contain the remains of at least 14 men killed shortly after they were taken into custody by the Malian security services between late December 2016 and May 2017. All three are located within the Mondoro or Koro administrative areas in Mopti region, near Mali’s border with Burkina Faso.
“We all know about the common graves near Mondoro, but no one has filed a judicial complaint,” one witness said. “People are terrified to open their mouths – we’re all just trying to avoid further abuses.”
In August, community leaders gave Human Rights Watch photographs of what they believed to be a common grave about seven kilometers south of Mondoro, containing the remains of at least six of 17 men who went missing following their arrest by soldiers between May 2 and 9. A local businessperson said:
Around 11 a.m., I was in the bush when I heard the sound of gunfire. I saw three or four army vehicles about 200 to 300 meters away, off the main road. I felt something wasn’t right and crouched down. … I heard a second wave of gunfire. I stayed hidden for 15 minutes, until they left towards Mondoro on the main road. Later, I went there and saw a mound of dirt… like a newly dug grave, and the tire tracks. Things are tense in our zone. I am very frightened.
Two other common graves previously reported on by Human Rights Watch have yet to be investigated by the Malian authorities. The first, according to four witnesses from Yirima, allegedly contains three members of an extended family detained by soldiers on January 21 and later executed. One witness said:
The soldiers bound their eyes and drove off toward Mondoro [26 kilometers away]. Some minutes later we heard gunshots in the distance. We followed the vehicle tracks to Bamguel village, 18 kilometers away, and saw a grave there, newly dug, covered with branches of trees and many spent casings… We removed the earth and found our people there. I returned to our village to deliver the bad news.
The second grave allegedly contains five men from Issèye village detained and executed by soldiers on December 19, 2016. One of two witnesses said:
At about 11 a.m., 10 FAMA vehicles full of heavily armed soldiers stormed the village. They didn’t stay long. They detained the village chief first, then the others. Around 4 p.m., we heard gunfire, and the next morning we found the shallow grave just a few kilometers away. We uncovered the bodies… the chief was on top… each had several gunshot wounds.
Witnesses and family members described the enforced disappearance of 27 men, all of whom were last seen in the custody of Malian security forces. The men were detained from June 2016 through June 2017 during military operations in Mopti and Ségou regions. Family members said the government has provided no information on the fate or whereabouts of those detained, although some families have obtained information through informal sources.
Witnesses and family members provided information to Human Rights Watch suggesting that at least nine of these men were executed by the security services in the days after their detention. Other family members alleged that they had information that several others were being held in extrajudicial detention within the General Directorate of State Security (DGSE).
Human Rights Watch was given a list of 17 men from the villages of Mougnoukana, Douna, Kobou, Yangassadio, and Guedouware who have been “disappeared” since their arrest in early May. Several witnesses told Human Rights Watch that they had been arrested on May 2 with seven of the missing men.
“We’ve looked everywhere,” said a relative of several of the disappeared from Mondoro. “We asked the National Guard, FAMA and gendarmes, but our people are nowhere.”
Other cases of enforced disappearance in central Mali documented by Human Rights Watch include:
- Samba Diallo dit Samba Niger, 67, a herder from Dogo (Mopti region), was detained by the security forces while waiting for a bus in the town of Mopti around June 8, 2016. Family members believe he was being detained at the DGSE.
- Hassan Sidibe, 53; Boubacar Sidibe, 49; Boubacar Sidibe, 30; and Yonousa Sidibe, 30, were detained during an army operation in Tomoyi village, near the town of Ténenkou on January 17, 2017. Family members learned that they were being held in the DGSE.
- Boura Alou Diallo, 32, arrested by soldiers near the village of Kokoli around January 23, 2017, was last seen tied to a tree near the Mondoro army camp. Family members believe he was executed in late January.
- Hamidou Barry and Hamadoun Dambou, both about 25 and from Karena village, were arrested in January 2017 by gendarmes from a hospital in Douentza, where the former was being treated. The family believe they are being held in the DGSE.
- Ibrahim Barry, 35, was last seen on February 3, 2017, after being detained by gendarmes based in Sévaré during a meeting in Mopti organized by a local nongovernmental organization. Family members said they believe Barry had been beaten to death in custody.
- Sidi Koita, 34, was last seen on May 31 or June 1, 2017, being questioned by soldiers at a checkpoint a kilometer from the town of Nampala. Witnesses said he was questioned in relation to an ambush near Nampala the previous day in which several soldiers had died. Community members believe Koita was executed.
General Directorate of State Security
Human Rights Watch spoke with 24 former detainees who said they had been held in a detention center run by the DGSE for periods ranging from 27 days to five months. The men did not have access to family members or lawyers and were not permitted to make phone calls. They said they were not brought before a judge prior to or during their detention there.
A DGSE officer told Human Rights Watch that every person they detained had appeared before a judge and was under an arrest warrant. These claims were also contradicted by several lawyers, human rights advocates, and a judge, who told Human Rights Watch they knew several men detained by the DGSE who were being held extrajudicially.
All those interviewed said that they were regularly fed, received periodic medical check-ups, and had cells with fans or air conditioning. However, they complained of cramped sleeping conditions, and several said they lacked access to proper hygiene. One former detainee described being mistreated within the DSGE center.
Another former detainee, held in the DSGE center for 37 days between May and July, said:
There were 13 of us in my cell and eight in another cell. We were brought straight here from our villages. We ate okay and only one of us was slapped around a bit, but the weird part is that they only interrogated us once or at most two times. We don’t understand the law, but I know we didn’t see a judge until we were transferred from the DGSE to the gendarmerie five weeks later.
An elderly man held for over four months told Human Rights Watch:
There were 16 of us in the small cell. The entire time, none of us there had contact with our families. All that time… no sunlight – you don’t know if it’s night or day. I was only interrogated three times, at the beginning. The day I was freed, they put a black bag over my head, put me in a civilian car, drove several miles and told me to get out. I never signed any papers, never saw a judge… like it never happened. The day I walked back into my village… you should have seen their faces… they were convinced I was dead.
Burkina Faso Security Force Violations
Several witnesses from hamlets near Mali’s border with Burkina Faso described how, on June 9, Burkinabe soldiers detained about 74 men, ages 20 to 70. The soldiers accused the villagers of supporting the Burkina Faso Islamist armed group Ansaroul Islam, which also has bases in Mali.
Many of the men were severely beaten, and two detainees died from the mistreatment shortly after arriving in Djibo, Burkina Faso, witnesses said. They also alleged that the Burkinabe soldiers burned property during the operation.
One witness said: “The Burkina army received intel about a few [armed] Islamists in the area – several may have fled here after the big French operation in Foulsaré forest, further north – but they [the Burkinabe army] picked up every man they came across, whether farming, grazing their cows, or at home.”
Witnesses and community leaders said 44 men were taken to Burkina Faso for questioning and that seven still remained in detention there.
Several family members said neither the Burkinabe nor Malian authorities have informed them of the legal status of the detainees. “How can a foreign army come here, to Malian soil, and detain, beat, kill and imprison our people?” said one elder. “I just spoke with the father of a man killed. No one has called him to say his son is there. Should he have to go to Burkina himself and get his son’s body?”
While Burkinabe security forces are authorized to conduct cross-border operations, they are not, according to Malian Justice Ministry officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch, authorized to detain and question Malian residents in Burkina Faso. “The Burkina authorities do not have the authority to take people across our border for interrogation,” said a high-level official. “This would be arranged through a process of transfer or extradition.”
A 25-year-old farmer from the town of Kobou, seven kilometers from the Burkina Faso border, described what happened on June 9:
At about 9 a.m. I was in my field when I saw many vehicles full of soldiers. They were aggressive and started to beat me in my field, hitting me with their guns and a belt. They threw me in their vehicle with the others and took us to Dolga hamlet a few kilometers away. “Why are you working with the jihadists who kill us?” they screamed. They beat us there as well, but the terrible beatings happened at the moment of our arrest. Their medic stitched a few of us up. I was among the 30 who were freed the same day… but they took over 40 away to Burkina.
A 57-year-old farmer from Kobou village described the apparent death of a man named Bourema Hama Diallo:
They started whacking me on my back with belts from the moment they showed up at my farm. They threw me in the truck… it was a huge operation… when we got to Dolga I found nearly the whole male population there. Many were injured; Bourema among them – he’d been hit on his head and was bleeding a lot. He almost passed out before they put us in trucks and took us to Djibo, some to the police and some to the gendarmerie. I was one of 18 in a truck that went to the gendarmerie.
After arriving, they took off my blindfold and I saw that he [Bourema] was bad off. Seeing this the gendarmes said, “We need to take him to the clinic.” They had to carry him. I know he died because later that night the gendarme who guarded us said, “Two of your people died before arriving at the health center.” The second [man] wasn’t in my truck. I didn’t see the bodies after that, but I know Bourema’s father, and he has yet to see his son.
This article was first published by Human Rights Watch