Mali: Unchecked Abuses in Military Operations

(Nairobi) – 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.”