Skip to main content

Mali: Prosecute Soldiers for Abuses

International Partners Should Address Urgent Protection Needs in North

(Nairobi) – The Malian government should urgently investigate and prosecute soldiers responsible for torture, summary executions, and enforced disappearances of suspected Islamist rebels and alleged collaborators since the fighting in northern Mali resumed in January 2013, Human Rights Watch said today. Mali’s international partners should bolster accountability efforts and civilian protection in the north to help prevent further abuses.

Human Rights Watch investigations since the French-led offensive in January helped the Malian army to retake most of the north found that government soldiers appeared to be targeting members of the Peuhl, Tuareg, and Arab ethnic groups in the Timbuktu, Douentza, Gao, Sévaré, Boni, and Konna areas. The soldiers accused members of these communities of supporting the armed Islamist groups that had earlier occupied the areas.

“The Malian government needs to act now to put a stop to these abuses by their soldiers and appropriately punish those responsible,” said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Restoring security in the north means providing protection for everybody, regardless of their ethnicity.”

Witnesses to recent abuses told Human Rights Watch both in Mali and by phone that government soldiers tortured two men, summarily executed two, and forcibly disappeared at least six others. Human Rights Watch had earlier documented the summary execution of at least 13 men and enforced disappearance of five others by government soldiers from Sévaré and in Konna during January 2013.

Extrajudicial Executions, Forced Disappearance, and Torture by Malian Soldiers
Several witnesses from a small village south of Boni (93 kilometers from Douentza) told Human Rights Watch that on February 9 at about 11 a.m., Malian soldiers patrolling the area detained two young ethnic Peuhl men whom they accused of being fighters for the MUJAO, an armed Islamist group. The witnesses said that the soldiers seemed to have been looking specifically for the two men, who were in their 20’s.

The soldiers forced the men into an army vehicle and drove them to the outskirts of the village, where they were still visible to villagers. Some minutes later, villagers heard several gunshots. Two witnesses went to a deep crevice in front of where the army truck had parked; they said that the odor of decomposing remains could be detected. The two men have not been heard from since.

In the Abaradjou neighborhood of Timbuktu on February 14, Malian soldiers detained four Arab men and a Songhai man, who have been missing ever since and are feared forcibly disappeared, relatives and neighbors told Human Rights Watch. Military and gendarme officials told Human Rights Watch on February 18 that they did not detain the five men. International law defines an enforced disappearance as thearrest or detention of a person by government officials or their agents followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty, or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts.

One family member told Human Rights Watch: “The soldiers broke down the door and smashed and kicked around the house, destroying a lot of things. One of the men grabbed my relative and took him away…. He is a merchant…. Everyone knows he has nothing to do with the Jihadists. If he did, wouldn’t he have fled long ago?”

A woman who lives nearby said that the Songhai man was a neighbor who tried to speak up for one of the Arab men and who was similarly thrown into the back of the soldiers’ pickup truck: “When he saw him [the Arab man] being detained, he said, ‘No…he was never involved with those people, leave him.’ Instead, the soldiers threw him into the back of their pickup.”

Another relative said, “All we want is a sign that he is alive…. One phone call so I can hear his voice.”

The men feared “disappeared” are Ali Ould Mohamed Kobad, 65; Danna Ould Dahama, 38; Mohamaed Ould Dahama, 40; Maouloud Fassoukoye, 40; and Mohamed Oud Sidi Ali, 68.

Family members of a 50-year-old Peuhl man detained on January 22 by soldiers in Douentza described their futile efforts to find him: “Every time we go to the military in Douentza they tell us he is not there, that we should look for him in Sévaré. When our family goes to the camp in Sévaré they say they’ve never heard of him. We don’t know if he is dead or alive; what we do know is that it is the soldiers who took him from us.”

Residents of other towns described two cases of torture. In early February, shortly after Islamist rebels attacked a local military outpost, soldiers allegedly detained a 43-year-old Tuareg man at a checkpoint. He was taken to a building adjacent to the checkpoint and severely beaten, burned on his abdomen and genitals with cigarettes, partially strangled, and then forced to ingest through his nose a toxic substance that severely burned his esophagus.

A Peuhl man held for one week in early February by the military in Douentza was allegedly burned with candles and cigarettes and severely beaten. His wife told Human Rights Watch: “We didn’t know where he was for a week. When he returned he told me he’d been held by the soldiers in Douentza…when he took off his shirt I saw that his back was full of terrible burns and wounds.” A friend of his added: “He said he was detained in a room with many others and that they took them out one by one to question them until they got the information they wanted. He was in bad shape.” The victim has since fled to Burkina Faso.

Five other men, whose detentions by soldiers in Sévaré, Konna, and around Konna were earlier documented by Human Rights Watch, remain disappeared.

“All officials need to act in accordance with human rights law if security and law and order are to be restored to areas recently recovered by the government,” Dufka said. “This means providing basic due process rights for anyone taken into custody, and making sure they are treated humanely. Commanders who fail to stop abuses by their troops can themselves be prosecuted.”

Exodus of Tuareg and Arab Populations
The resumption of hostilities in the north in January was accompanied by an exodus of about 22,000 Malian civilians, the vast majority ethnic Tuareg and Arabs, who are believed to have fled the area out of fear of reprisals by the army and, to a lesser extent, by civilians. Civilians from numerous villages said their towns and villages were now “practically empty” of Tuaregs and Arabs.

Tuareg and Arab civilians who have remained in Mali told Human Rights Watch that they were terrified of being detained and abused under suspicion of having supported armed Islamist groups. One Tuareg woman in Timbuktu told Human Rights Watch: “I go to work, I come back but don’t dare to go out. I feel like a prisoner in my own country.” Another said: “I am fearful for my family. When in the street, I hear people saying they want to rid Timbuktu of us…only a few of us remain…but who knows for how long.”

Several other Arab civilians told Human Rights Watch they wanted to leave, but fear being stopped and detained at military checkpoints along the way. One Arab man described being “too afraid to stay, but too afraid to leave.” An Arab man who said his father was forcibly disappeared by the Malian army said he wanted to evacuate all remaining members of his family but, “I don’t know how to do it…I’m afraid for them to move.”

Civilian Protection Gap
The military offensive to recapture the north took place within a context of dangerously elevated ethnic tensions, Human Rights Watch said. The state institutions that could mitigate, respond to, and ultimately prevent violence – the police, gendarmes, the judiciary – withdrew in early 2012, when the north fell to the armed Islamist groups. Mali’s civil servants have only recently begun to return. Plans by United Nations agencies, the European Union, and the African Union to provide human rights training to the military and deploy human rights monitors and possibly peacekeepers may eventually improve civilian protection. But they do not address the pressing security vacuum and protection needs.

The public information campaign started by the government, religious leaders, and community groups is an important measure to address ethnic tensions, Human Rights Watch said. The government should increase the reach of this important program, including the “Recotrad du Nord” (Network of Traditional Communicators from the North, Réseau des Communicateurs Traditionnels du Nord). To address abuses by the military and address urgent civilian protection needs within the current security vacuum, Human Rights Watch also recommends the following:


To the Malian government:

  • Ensure that everyone taken into custody during military operations is treated humanely, is promptly brought before a judicial authority to ensure the legality of their detention, and is able to contact their families.
  • Investigate and prosecute in accordance with international fair trial standards members of the security forces implicated in recent serious abuses regardless of position or rank – including those liable under command responsibility for their failure to prevent or prosecute these crimes.
  • Accelerate redeployment of police, gendarmes, and Justice Ministry personnel to towns and villages in the north.
  • Establish a 24-hour telephone hotline, staffed by relevant Malian authorities and personnel from the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) for victims and witnesses to report complaints about violations, including by members of the security services.
  • Ensure effective and rapid communication between hotline staff and Malian authorities mandated with civilian protection as well as AFISMA personnel.
  • Direct the Malian National Human Rights Commission to monitor and report on hate speech that incites ethnic violence. For instance, an article published on February 4, 2013, in L’Express de Bamako (“La liste des membres du MNLA: Des traitres à abattre pour la République,” List of MNLA members: Traitors to kill in the name of the Republic) contained language that could be considered incitement to violence.

To the United Nations, African Union, and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS):

  • Call upon the government to conduct prompt, credible investigations into allegations of killings, enforced disappearances, and other abuses by Malian armed forces.
  • Urgently deploy countrywide, international human rights monitors from the United Nations, African Union, and ECOWAS to document current and past abuses and visit places of detention.

To the French government, African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA), and European Union:

  • Increase the presence of French and AFISMA troops alongside patrols by the Malian army to deter abuses against civilians.
  • Carry out any redeployment of French and AFISMA troops in ways that do not leave civilians at unnecessary risk of abuses.
  • Incorporate in the EU Training Mission (EUTM Mali) mandated to train and advise the Malian military a meaningful mentoring component that would place instructors in the field alongside Malian forces.  

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country