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Mali: Establish Special Investigation Cell

Bamako-Based Unit Would Investigate Wartime Atrocities

(Nairobi) – The government of Mali should establish a special investigation cell to investigate grave crimes committed by all sides during the 2012-2013 armed conflict, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to Justice Minister Mohamed Ali Bathily. The unit should consist of prosecutors, investigative judges, and others needed to carry out the unit’s work.

The recent return to northern Mali of judicial personnel forced to flee during the conflict is an important development. However, tasking those courts with investigating war crimes and other serious abuses committed during the 2012-2013 armed conflict would pose serious security and resource challenges, Human Rights Watch said. The time needed for these judicial institutions to become fully functional would contribute to inevitable delays.

“The creation of a special investigation cell in the capital, Bamako, would be the best and safest way to ensure fair and credible investigations of wartime atrocities,” said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The special cell would allow Mali to capitalize on the current momentum for strengthening the rule of law and breaking the cycle of violence and reprisals in the country.”

Human Rights Watch and other international and national organizations extensively documented war crimes and other serious abuses by all sides during the conflict. Islamist armed groups summarily executed Malian soldiers, recruited and used child combatants, amputated limbs of criminal suspects, and destroyed shrines. The ethnic Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) committed sexual violence and widespread pillage. Some soldiers in the Malian army were responsible for torture, enforced disappearance, and extrajudicial executions.

The government has made a commitment to ensure justice for grave crimes by all sides. But very few investigations are being conducted and no one has yet been prosecuted.

There is a growing demand for justice evidenced by the scores of victims and their families from all sides who have filed judicial complaints (porté plainte) with the authorities, Human Rights Watch said. Forming a special investigation cell would build on the momentum created by the increased expectation of justice, the progress in the “Red Beret dossier” (an investigation into the 2012 enforced disappearance and torture of at least 21 soldiers) and the presence of considerable donor and institutional support for reforming the judiciary and strengthening Mali’s rule of law.

Human Rights Watch detailed several reasons why a Bamako-based cell would be preferable to investigations by northern courts including:

  • The unit could centralize expertise in key areas, such as the investigation of crimes not often handled by Malian courts, or link evidence from low-level suspects to senior officials implicated in multiple international crimes;
  • The unit could help address the marked absence of defense lawyers in the north, which would pose a serious challenge for the right of the accused to have competent counsel;
  • Basing investigative judges, prosecutors and other court officials working on high-profile cases in the north, especially in smaller jurisdictions, would make them vulnerable to attack and intimidation. The evidence gathered and judicial infrastructure would also be at risk; and
  • The concentration of investigations in one location would more easily facilitate an effective system of witness protection.

“Conducting credible, impartial, and prompt investigations into the crimes committed during the 2012-2013 conflict would give hope to victims and go a long way toward breaking from the past when perpetrators got away scot free,” Dufka said. “Establishing a Bamako-based special investigation cell would greatly help in seeing justice done for crimes during the 2012-2013 conflict.”


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