(Bamako) – The decision by a judge in Mali to charge and detain three security force members and summon for questioning 17 others for their alleged role in enforced disappearances is an important step for justice in Mali and for the victims’ families. Malian authorities should urgently ensure security for the judge and other judicial personnel investigating the case, and witnesses, and protect the rights of the accused.

The three suspects, a gendarme captain and two soldiers, were taken into custody on October 23 and 30, 2013. They were charged with complicity to commit abduction in the 2012 enforced disappearance of at least 20 soldiers. On October 31, the judge issued mandatory summonses for 17 other soldiers for their role in the same crime, including General Amadou Haya Sanogo, who led a coup in March 2012, when he held the rank of captain.

“The courageous work of Malian authorities investigating this prominent case is a significant and encouraging advance for justice in Mali,” said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The families of the ‘disappeared’ soldiers have endured terrible suffering and deserve to know the fate of their loved ones.”

In the early morning hours of May 2, 2012, soldiers who had taken part in the March 2012 coup against then-president President Amadou Toumani Touré forcibly disappeared at least 20 soldiers they had detained for their alleged involvement in an April 30, 2012 counter-coup. Most of the disappeared formed part of an elite unit of paratroopers known as the Red Berets. The then-authorities did not acknowledge detaining the men or provide information on their whereabouts, and they are feared dead. Numerous other soldiers who had been apprehended were subjected to torture and inhuman treatment in detention.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 32 people, including 10 victims and 13 relatives of victims, about the enforced disappearances and torture. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that members of the security services loyal to Sanogo carried out the torture and other abuses. The 20 “disappeared” soldiers were last seen alive on May 2, inside Kati Military Camp, 15 kilometers north of the Malian capital, Bamako, which was then the headquarters of Sanogo and his loyalists.

The torture documented by Human Rights Watch and other national and international organizations took place over several weeks in May 2012. The victims described being handcuffed and hogtied, beaten with batons, sticks, and gun butts, and kicked in the back, head, ribs, genitals, and elsewhere. Others said they were stabbed in their extremities and burned with cigarettes and lighters on their backs, hands, arms, and ears.

Several witnesses saw the disappeared men at Kati camp, including one who described seeing military personnel transfer the detainees to a military truck. “They bound their hands and legs, ordered them onto a truck, covered their eyes, and took them away,” the witness said. Another witness provided Human Rights Watch a hand-written list of the soldiers seen in the camp and now disappeared. The mother of one disappeared soldier said that her son had gotten access to a cell phone and told her that military personnel were arguing among themselves about whether to kill him.

There are unconfirmed reports that the men were executed and buried near the town of Diago, 12 kilometers from Kati. In 2012, Human Rights Watch spoke with Diago residents who said rounds were fired on the night of May 2, 2012, but they were too terrified to provide further details. Mali’s donors, including the United Nations, should assist the government with forensic expertise should possible graves of the men be located.

Under international law, an enforced disappearance occurs when the government or its agents take a person into custody but refuse to acknowledge doing so or do not provide information about the person’s whereabouts or fate. Among the rights an enforced disappearance may violate are those to life, liberty, and security of the person, including protection from torture and other ill-treatment. Family members whose loss of their loved ones goes without explanation or redress are also victims of enforced disappearance.

The Malian authorities should broaden their investigation into the other alleged military abuses during this period, Human Rights Watch said. For instance, in July 2012, two journalists writing about abuses following the failed counter-coup were abducted. Abrahamane Kéïta, editor of L’Aurore newspaper, and Saouti Labass Haidara, publisher of L’Independent were taken away by armed, masked gunmen driving pickup trucks with no license plates. The journalists were severely beaten and dumped on the outskirts of Bamako after being warned to stop criticizing the military. Haidara suffered a fractured arm and multiple contusions.

The Malian authorities are also investigating a spate of killings and abductions allegedly carried out between September 30 and October 3, 2013, in and around Bamako by members of the security services who remain loyal to General Sanogo. Sources investigating the case told Human Rights Watch that the bodies of at least four soldiers have been found and at least seven others have been reported missing.

Justice Ministry officials told Human Rights Watch in Bamako on October 30 that the 2013 abuses were under investigation and that they would ensure that justice is done irrespective of the rank of the alleged abusers.

“Respect for rule of law in Mali was grossly undermined by the often outrageous and violent behavior of soldiers loyal to General Sanogo,” Dufka said. “As a matter of urgency, the judge and other judicial personnel working to investigate the abuses must be ensured adequate protection.”