(Bamako) – Security forces in Mali have used excessive force in responding to at-times violent protests by the political opposition, Human Rights Watch said today. During three days of unrest in July 2020 in the capital, Bamako, at least 14 people were killed and over 300 wounded, including demonstrators, bystanders, and security force members. Opposition coalition leaders should take concrete steps to prevent any further violence by their supporters.
The current political crisis was sparked by a Constitutional Court ruling in April that gave the ruling party a majority in parliament, as well as high unemployment, ongoing instability in Mali's north and center, and perceived state corruption. Although the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has sought to defuse the crisis, renewed opposition demonstrations are expected.
“The recent violence that rocked the capital left a terrible toll of dead and wounded in its wake,” said Corinne Dufka, Sahel director at Human Rights Watch. “Excessive use of force by the security forces clearly contributed to this toll. Before any more lives are lost, Malian security forces should ensure that they respond to violent protests with minimum force, while political parties should impose restraint on their members.”
Since June 2020, a broad coalition of opposition political parties, religious leaders, and civil society organizations under the umbrella of The June 5 - Rally of Patriotic Forces Movement (Mouvement du 5 juin Rassemblement des Forces Patriotiques or M5-RFP), has protested against the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, and at times called for his resignation.
During demonstrations and violence on July 10-12, protesters erected barricades; threw stones and used slingshots; occupied, burned, and looted parts of government buildings; and threatened a judge’s home. Security forces arrested at least five opposition leaders, ransacked the M5-RFP headquarters, and used teargas and live rounds to remove barricades and disperse protesters. The opposition leaders were released on July 13.
Human Rights Watch researchers in Bamako and by phone spoke to 26 people with knowledge of the events including 19 witnesses, plus government officials, journalists, opposition leaders, and security analysts. They described 14 deaths of protesters and bystanders, allegedly as a result of gunfire by the security forces in Bamako on July 10 and11. Several witnesses interviewed had been injured by teargas canisters or bullets.
A government statement said the violence injured 303 people – 176 demonstrators or bystanders and 127 security force members. An M5-RFP statement said security forces were responsible for 23 deaths, all by gunfire. According to Agence France Press and the United Nations, the dead included at least 2 children. The leaders of M5-RFP told Human Right Watch that those involved in street violence were not part of their movement, though some accounts contradicted this assertion.
Witnesses said that on July 10, two people were killed by gunfire near the National Assembly and national broadcast office. Most believed the deaths were from stray bullets. “I saw two young people after they’d been shot … one in the head, the other in the stomach,” one witness said. “Both died on the spot.”
On July 11, security forces fatally shot at least 12 people in the Badalabougou neighborhood. Three were shot by security force personnel guarding the home of the former president of the Constitutional Court. “I saw two youth drop dead – one hit in the head, the other in the chest,” a witness said. “A third youth was badly wounded in the stomach. We took him to the closest hospital on a motorcycle, but he didn’t make it.”
Security force members shot and killed at least nine people after their security force vehicle fell into an apparently opened gutter near the home and adjacent mosque of Mahmoud Dicko, an influential imam and M5-RFP leader. Witnesses said panicked security force members fired on the demonstrators as they approached the vehicle, killing six, while others were killed as they ran. “They continued firing as we ran toward the mosque,” one witness said. “Three people lost too much blood … they died hours later inside the mosque.”
On July 11, President Keita promised an investigation into protester deaths, and on July 14, the prime minister’s office announced the opening of an investigation into the alleged use of the elite Anti-Terrorist Force (FORSAT) during the demonstrations. The authorities should make public the results of these investigations and hold to account all those involved in the violence.
The Mali government should publicly order the security forces to abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, Human Rights Watch said. The Basic Principles state that security forces shall “apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms,” and that whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials should: use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense and the legitimate objective to be achieved, minimize damage and injury at all times, and respect and preserve human life. Furthermore, intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made “when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”
“The government should send a clear message that abuses and violence from any side, including law enforcement, will be impartially investigated and fairly prosecuted,” Dufka said.
Witness Accounts of 14 Deaths on July 10, 11, and 12, 2020
July 10, 2020: Violence at National Assembly and Office of Radio and Television
On July 10, protesters responding to a call by the M5-RFP for civil disobedience shut down bridges and occupied the national broadcaster, the Malian Office of Radio and Television (ORTM), and parts of the National Assembly.
“At around 3 p.m., the M5 leaders asked the huge crowd gathered at Independence Square to occupy the ORTM and National Assembly,” a witness said. “Most were peaceful, but some didn’t listen to their orders to be peaceful, especially around the National Assembly, which was looted and partly set on fire. I saw other demonstrators attack and rob a journalist filming the looting.”
Security force operations to clear protesters from the ORTM and National Assembly reportedly left two people dead. Witnesses, M5-RFP members, and journalists who covered the violence told Human Rights Watch they did not see the security forces firing directly at protesters and so believed the two dead, including a bystander, were as a result of stray bullets. “From where I hid, I saw them firing recklessly near the ORTM entrance … bursts of gunfire into the air,” a witness said.
Witnesses, including several who took part in the demonstrations, said police officers responded to the looting at the National Assembly with teargas and gunfire, which left several people wounded. “I saw one woman wounded by a stray bullet and several people passed out from teargas,” another witness said.
Witnesses at the national broadcast office said the security forces beat some protesters with truncheons, and fired teargas and live rounds to dislodge peaceful protesters, who then started throwing rocks at them. “We spent 30 minutes in the ORTM courtyard singing – we were peaceful – when suddenly, there were explosions of teargas and shots rang out,” another witness said.
Three witnesses near the ORTM described the arrival of two pickup trucks with security force members dressed in black and with black balaclavas who, they said, were implicated in the alleged excessive use of force. One of them said: “I was in a restaurant, 50 meters from the ORTM, when I saw one pickup [truck], then a second right behind … The men inside were in black, their faces covered with hoods, and heavily armed with teargas grenades and Kalashnikov [military assault] rifles.”
Several people alleged that the security force members were from the elite Anti-Terrorism Force, known as FORSAT. “They attacked what had been a peaceful protest,” one demonstrator said. “As soon as FORSAT arrived – about 10 of them in black – started firing teargas and live rounds into the air. When I saw them, I tried to reach my comrades who were on the ORTM roof, negotiating to do a direct transmission for M5. This is when the craziness started – as teargas canisters flew, people in the courtyard ran in all directions.”
Witnesses said scores of demonstrators were wounded while scaling a barbed-wire fence and by teargas canisters. “I saw a canister explode near a young man, burning his arm, and another man lost two fingers as a canister exploded as he tried to throw it away from the crowd,” a witness said.
Witnesses said the security forces failed to give protesters a chance to leave the national broadcast office peacefully. One said he saw about 100 people cut by barbed wire as they tried to scale the wall around the broadcast office after shots rang out. “When the security forces started firing in the air, people panicked – they were blocked in the ORTM premises,” said a man who provided first aid. “As they tried to jump the wall, so many people were cut on their hands, feet, and stomachs.”
Witnesses and a statement by the Africa Media Development Foundation, a nongovernmental organization, said several journalists were assaulted by both demonstrators and security force personnel, and that the ORTM suffered heavy losses as it was looted or vandalized by the demonstrators. A few vehicles in the compound were set on fire during the violence, including one which caught fire after being hit by a teargas canister. Said one witness: “From where I hid, in the parking lot, I saw a vehicle catch fire when a teargas grenade crashed through a car window, setting the car on fire.”
July 11, 2020: Violence Near Home of Former Constitutional Court President
At about 5 p.m. on July 11, about 100 protesters gathered outside the home of the former Constitutional Court president, Manassa Danioko, located in the Badalabougou neighborhood of Bamako. The protesters, some of whom threw stones and bricks, included M5-RFP members; men and boys from the neighborhood; and supporters of Imam Mahmoud Dicko, whose mosque is nearby.
Witnesses said the demonstrators targeted Danioko’s house because they blamed her for controversial rulings on several contested parliamentary seats. Witnesses said that at about 5:30 p.m., members of the security forces guarding her house responded to the growing crowd with teargas and minutes later fired into a group of demonstrators who, according to two witnesses, were slowly advancing toward her house. “At first, the police didn’t react, but as more and more protesters came, the bodyguards pushed back with teargas, shots in the air, and when they saw so many people, with direct fire,” a witness said.
Witnesses said three protesters were killed, including a young man whose body remained in the street for several hours. “Every time we tried to retrieve his body to take it to his family, the police fired at us,” a witness said. The French daily, Le Monde, reported that four demonstrators were killed in the incident, including two minors.
Witnesses said those involved in the incident were policemen from the BSI (Special Intervention Brigade), dressed in black, who routinely guard Danioko’s house, and at least one armed man in civilian clothes. “As we approached the house, a man in plain clothes with a bulletproof vest came out with an AK-47 rifle,” a witness said. “About 30 meters from the house he shouted at us to stop, firing first in the air – bam! bam! bam! As we advanced slowly, we raised our hands, chanting ‘Manassa resign,’ at which point he fired at us, killing one youth on the spot. Later we started throwing rocks and different armed men responded with more fire, killing two more people.”
July 11, 2020: Violence Outside the Home and Mosque of Imam Dicko
Witnesses said that security forces shot and killed at least nine people on July 11 at about 10 p.m. during violence between demonstrators throwing rocks and using slingshots and the security forces outside the home and adjacent mosque of Dicko, the influential imam and M5-RFP leader.
The witnesses said that starting at about 4 p.m., a few hundred people erected barricades on the streets leading to Dicko’s house and mosque to protect him from what they believed was his imminent arrest by the security forces.
Witnesses described a tense situation, with the security forces firing large amounts of teargas and sporadic gunfire from about 5 p.m. until late into the night. “The faithful were in defensive positions and had blocked all roads going to the imam’s mosque,” said a witness. “The majority of casualties on all sides occurred around Dicko’s house. Law enforcement reinforcements had to be sent three times in a row from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.,” a security analyst said.
“His supporters were angry and agitated after the arrests of other M5 leaders earlier in the day. I saw many with rocks, slingshots, and a few making Molotov cocktails,” another witness said.
“We heard by phone and Facebook that the police were going to force their way into the imam’s mosque and arrest him,” another man said. “I was one of at least 100 who went to protect him. We erected barricades – including using a hearse – and threw stones to keep the police away. They were surprised to see how much protection the imam had from his faithful.”
The witnesses and protesters said the security forces involved in the operation around the imam’s compound were dressed in black and were masked with balaclavas. “I arrived at around 8 p.m. and on my way, saw heavily armed men in black with hoods around the mosque,” a participant said.
The participants believed the security forces were with the FORSAT, though none of the witnesses saw FORSAT insignia on their uniforms or vehicles. A security source said some vehicles deployed to respond to violence around Dicko’s house were under the command of the Police Anti Crime Brigade (BAC). In an interview with the French newspaper, Le Point, the former security minister said: “No one saw the FORSAT. The police officers, in their attire, have their logo. If they had been there, we would have seen more pictures. There are plenty of units that are hooded and wear black uniforms.”
Six witnesses, including four participants, said the vast majority of casualties occurred around 10 p.m. when security force members opened fire on a group of demonstrators after a security force vehicle got stuck in a gutter some 100 meters from the imam’s mosque. The protesters said the vehicle fell into the gutter after the demonstrators purposefully removed the concrete slab that covered it. They said their intention was to immobilize the vehicle, chase away the security force personnel, and damage the vehicle.
“Every time the armored vehicle passed by, they fired teargas to chase us from the barricades and every time, we responded with stones and slingshots,” a participant said. “We stayed in this ping-pong for a few hours until some of us had the idea of immobilizing their vehicle by removing a concrete slab that covered a ditch near the Imam’s mosque. And that’s exactly what happened … the next time their vehicle advanced on us, it fell into the ditch.”
Protesters, including a few wounded by gunfire in the incident, said the security forces appeared to panic as a group of demonstrators moved toward the stranded vehicle. “Some of us shouted, ‘We’re going to burn this vehicle!’ We ran to it – it was about 40 meters away. The occupants got out, knelt down, and opened fire. We lost six people on the spot and the rest of us ran for cover.” One participant said the security forces fired teargas before opening fire on the demonstrators.
The witnesses said about 10 more people were injured by gunfire at around the same time, including 3 who later died from their injuries. Some of the injured had been gathered near the mosque when the attempted move on the security force vehicle took place.
“Every time someone moved, they fired at us. Some of the demonstrators ran to hide behind the hearse or near the mosque, but the security forces kept firing,” a demonstrator said. “Near the armored car, I saw a man trying to drag the body of a comrade who’d died a few meters away. Reinforcements had taken up position at the end of the block … bullets were blowing everywhere. Every time he tried to pull the body closer, a policeman positioned on his knee at the end of the block shot at him. We remained there until around 11 p.m. until the vehicle was extracted from the hole and the police left.”
A Human Rights Watch researcher saw several bullet holes on the mosque and on the hearse used as a barricade by the demonstrators as a shield against the security forces.
“Things turned into a nightmare when the imam's faithful moved to attack this vehicle,” a protester said. “Before that, there was firing and lots of rock-throwing, but I wasn’t aware of anyone at the mosque being wounded or killed by gunfire.”
On July 11, there were several other reported casualties from stray bullets, including a medical student, who was killed, and an international football player and a 22-year-old woman, who were wounded.
Malian political parties and M5-RFP should:
- Make clear and strong public statements, at the highest levels of each party and organization, denouncing all forms of politically motivated violence.
- Discipline members found to have engaged in, ordered, covered up, or incited violence.
- Fully cooperate with any criminal investigation into demonstration-related violence.
The Malian Government Should:
- Direct all security force members to abide by the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials in policing demonstrations, and provide ongoing training on the use of these Principles.
- Make public the results of the investigation into the use of FORSAT during the July 10-12 demonstrations.
- Inform all ranks of the security forces that credible allegations of human rights abuses by security forces will be investigated, and those responsible will be disciplined and held to account.