The government of Mali should urgently conduct credible investigations into abuses against suspects its army detained during a major military operation against armed Islamist groups, Human Rights Watch said. The army high command should suspend officers implicated in abuse pending investigations and ensure that all detainees are treated humanely and are promptly turned over to government gendarmes.

The investigations should include the deaths in detention of 27 men and the severe torture of two others in February, March, and April 2018 during Operation Dambe, a major offensive that ramped up in early 2018 in the Mopti region of Central Mali. The army has said that it is investigating two of the reported cases. In light of the failure of the military to hold accountable soldiers implicated in past abuses, an independent Justice Ministry investigation for the current spate of abuses is crucial, Human Rights Watch said.

“Multiple accounts of mass arrests followed by the discovery of common graves point to the army running amok in central Mali,” said Corinne Dufka, associate Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Prompt government action is needed to stop the abuses and bring those responsible to justice.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 14 men on April 5, who had been arrested in the Mopti region during military operations on March 8 and 12. Five of the detainees alleged that they were mistreated while in army custody, two of them severely. Numerous deep gashes and scars covering their backs, abdomens, and legs were clearly visible during the interviews, one of which was in a clinic where the most severely injured detainee was still receiving medical attention.

A 57-year-old herder described being tortured by the soldiers. He said that at around 8 a.m. on March 12, six soldiers arrested him, his son, and a nephew at their home. The soldiers ordered them to walk to a spot outside the village, where he was blindfolded, and his hands and feet bound. He was severely beaten there for about 40 minutes. “One soldier held my head while another held my feet. The third began striking me with a machete on my back again and again until I lost consciousness.”

Another man, 42, detained in the same operation, was beaten with gun butts and a machete, and threatened with death: “They interrogated me while beating me and one threatened to slit my throat if I didn’t talk.”

The defense and justice ministries should also follow through on pledges to investigate two common graves in the towns of Sokolo and Dogo, which contain the remains of 13 men allegedly executed just days after soldiers took them into custody.

In Sokolo, relatives said that the army arrested seven ethnic Peuhl men who were celebrating a baptism on February 21. They included the head of the village and several members of his family. The relatives said they had learned from informal sources that their detained family members were thought to have been killed in custody. On February 27, the Malian government announced it had investigated and determined that the seven men were killed during fighting in the region.

On March 25, residents of Dogo told Human Rights Watch they had identified the bodies of six men, including a father and son, who had been arrested by security forces three days earlier. One said: “The last time we saw them alive they were in the custody of the soldiers. The next time we saw them they were in a common grave.” In a statement to the media, Mayor Omar Dicko of Dogo reported that the men, all of them ethnic Peuhl, were well known in the village as merchants and had no known involvement with armed groups. The defense minister has said that he had not been fully briefed on the discovered grave, but that he would seek to open an investigation into the incident.

Villagers from around the Dioura area told Human Rights Watch on April 5 that the army had detained 14 local men from the villages of Nelbal and Dekounna. The next day the army issued a statement saying that 14 men had died while attempting to escape. A witness said: “The army found a gun in the village and proceeded to arrest all the men – they were blindfolded and taken away by the army. We only learned of their fate from social media.”

In a September 2017 news release, Human Rights Watch documented the existence of three other common graves – in the villages of Yirima, Issèye, and Mougnoukana – which witnesses allege contain the remains of at least 14 men killed after being taken into custody by the Malian security services between late December 2016 and May 2017. In October, the Defense Ministry committed to investigate the allegations.

“The rapidly growing list of grave incidents in the Mopti region suggests that the army there has serious command and control problems that need to be urgently addressed,” Dufka said. “This is all the more reason for a credible independent investigation by civilian authorities.”