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Burkina Faso: Abductions Used to Crack Down on Dissent

Locate ‘Disappeared’; Investigate Abusive Conscription; Hold Abusers to Account

Ablassé Ouedraogo, a former foreign minister and chair of the opposition party Le Faso Autrement, speaking here in November 2014, was abducted from his home in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso on December 24, 2023, by assailants claiming to be members of the national police. © 2014 STR/AFP via Getty Images

(Nairobi) – The Burkina Faso military junta is increasingly abducting civil society activists and political opponents as part of its crackdown on peaceful dissent, Human Rights Watch said today.

Since late November 2023, unidentified men have abducted at least six activists and opposition party members in the capital, Ouagadougou, raising concerns of enforced disappearances. The Burkinabè authorities should urgently take effective measures to produce those missing or forcibly disappeared, end abusive conscription, and bring those responsible to justice.

“The Burkinabé authorities are using increasingly brutal methods to punish and silence perceived critics and opponents,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Sahel researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should urgently and impartially investigate all abductions, enforced disappearances, and abusive conscriptions, and release those wrongfully detained.”

In a recent case, on February 20, 2024, armed men in civilian clothes abducted Rasmané Zinaba, a member of the civil society group Balai Citoyen, at his home in Ouagadougou. “At least four gunmen took him between 6:15 and 6:30 a.m.,” a Balai Citoyen member told Human Rights Watch. “They drove him off in a civilian vehicle.”

The following day, February 21, men in civilian clothes, presenting themselves as government security officers, abducted Bassirou Badjo, also a member of the Balai Citoyen at the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs office in Ouagadougou.  Later that day, Balai Citoyen issued a statement condemning the abductions and calling for its members’ immediate release. The men’s families and Balai Citoyen filed a complaint with the police, but there has been no follow-up action.

On the night of January 24/25, unidentified men abducted Guy Hervé Kam, a prominent lawyer and coordinator of the political group Serve and Not be Served (Servir Et Non se Servir, SENS), inside Ouagadougou’s international airport. The group issued a statement on January 25 that men in civilian clothes presenting themselves as members of the national intelligence services took Kam into custody and drove him to “an unknown destination.”

On December 24, 2023, unidentified men abducted Ablassé Ouédraogo, 70, a former Burkina Faso foreign minister and chair of the opposition party Le Faso Autrement (the alternative Faso). On December 27, the party released a statement that “individuals claiming to be members of the national police” had taken Ouedraogo from his home in Ouagadougou at about 6:30 p.m. on December 24.

On December 1, 2023, unidentified men abducted Daouda Diallo, a prominent human rights activist and secretary-general of the Collective Against Impunity and Stigmatization of Communities (Collectif contre l'Impunité et la Stigmatisation des Communautés, CISC), in Ouagadougou. Diallo had just left the government’s passport office after a meeting with officials to renew his passport. The CISC issued a statement the same day saying that men in civilian clothes pushed Diallo into a vehicle and drove off. His whereabouts remain unknown.

On November 29, 2023, men in civilian clothes presenting themselves as members of the national intelligence services abducted Lamine Ouattara, a member of the Burkinabè Movement for Human and Peoples’ Rights (Mouvement Burkinabè des Droits de l’Homme et des Peuples, MBDHP), from his home in Ouagadougou, the head of the group said.

In early November, the Burkinabè security forces, using a sweeping emergency law, notified at least a dozen journalists, civil society activists, and opposition party members, including Diallo, Ouédraogo, Zinaba, and Badjo, that they would be conscripted to participate in government security operations across the country.

On February 18, Ouédraogo and Diallo appeared in a video posted on social networks, wearing camouflage military uniforms, holding Kalashnikov assault rifles, and participating in military exercises presumably in a conflict zone. Human Rights Watch was unable to verify the video. The authorities have never provided any information regarding the whereabouts of Ouédraogo and Diallo, or any of those recently abducted.

The transitional military authorities asserted that the conscription orders issued in November were authorized under the April 13, 2023 “general mobilization,” part of a plan to recapture territory lost to Islamist armed groups, which control roughly half of the country. The plan seeks to create a “legal framework for all actions” to be taken against insurgents and gives the president extensive powers to combat the insurgency, including requisitioning people and goods and restricting civil liberties. However, domestic civil society groups, media organizations, trade unions, and international human rights groups have strongly condemned the “general mobilization” decree, contending that it has been used to silence peaceful dissent.

While governments are empowered to conscript members of the civilian population over  18 years old for the national defense, conscription should not take place unless it has been authorized and is in accordance with domestic law. The conscription law needs to meet reasonable standards of fairness in apportioning the burden of military service. It needs to be carried out in a manner that gives the potential conscript notice of the duration of the military service and an adequate opportunity to contest being required to serve at that time. Conscription also needs to be carried out according to standards consistent with nondiscrimination and equal protection under law.

On December 6, 2023, a court in Ouagadougou ruled on a complaint filed by the journalist Issiaka Lingani and Balai Citoyen activists Badjo and Zinaba, who received conscription notices in November. The court found that their conscriptions were unlawful, violated rights to freedom of expression and movement, and caused a risk to physical integrity, and ordered their suspension. Kam, the lawyer who was abducted in January, was among the legal representatives of the three men who filed the complaint.

Human rights activists and journalists told Human Rights Watch they avoid speaking out against the junta out of fear of being conscripted. “We are paralyzed by fear,” said a SENS member on January 26. “Even holding a press conference, one of our basic rights, becomes a heroic act.” A human rights defender based in the Sahel region said: “A journalist called me to comment on a recent attack by suspected armed Islamist fighters in the city of Essakane. I told him: ‘Do you want me to get conscripted?’ Expressing your views on the security situation in the country can send you straight to the front, that’s the reality.”

Since the October 2022 coup, Burkina Faso’s military junta has increasingly cracked down on peaceful dissent and the media, shrinking the civic space in the country. National and international journalists, as well as civil society members, face increasing harassment, threats, and arbitrary arrests.

Burkina Faso is a party to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. Under the convention, a state commits an enforced disappearance when government authorities or their agents detain an individual followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealing the fate or whereabouts of the person, placing them outside the protection of the law. Forcibly disappeared people commonly face torture or extrajudicial execution. Families must live with the uncertainty of not knowing if their loved ones are dead or alive, and worrying about their treatment in captivity.

“The Burkinabè authorities use of abusive conscriptions are abductions that may amount to enforced disappearances and need to stop,” Allegrozzi said. “Using conscription to crack down on critics and dissidents is not only illegal but undermines efforts to combat the insurgency in Burkina Faso.”

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