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Mali: Security Force Whistleblower Arrested

Colonel Feared ‘Forcibly Disappeared’ for Speaking Out Against Military Abuse

Soldiers of the Malian armed forces at the ceremony of the 60th anniversary of Mali's independence in Bamako, September 22, 2020. © 2020 MICHELE CATTANI/AFP via Getty Images

(Nairobi) – Mali’s military authorities have arrested a colonel from the gendarmerie who recently published a book about abuses by the Malian armed forces, raising fears of an enforced disappearance, Human Rights Watch said today.

Various sources, including one who spoke to Human Rights Watch, said that on March 2, 2024, unidentified men abducted gendarmerie Col. Alpha Yaya Sangaré from his home in Bamako, Mali’s capital, and drove off with him in a vehicle without a license plate. The military has since confirmed Sangaré’s arrest but has yet to divulge where he is being detained.

“Mali’s military has responded to allegations of serious abuses by going after the whistleblower instead of addressing the abuses themselves,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Sahel researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should immediately announce where Colonel Sangaré is being held and safely release him.”

On February 24, Sangaré published his book, Mali: The Challenge of Terrorism in Africa, which denounced human rights abuses by the Malian armed forces in their fight against Islamist armed groups. The book’s reporting includes extracts from a 2017 Human Rights Watch report on extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary arrests of men accused of supporting Islamist armed groups.

After the book’s publication, Mali’s defense minister said that Sangaré made “false accusations against the Malian armed forces” and that the officer would face the law. The minister of territorial administration also denounced the book.

Mali’s military junta has increasingly cracked down on peaceful dissent, political opposition, and the media, shrinking the country’s civic space. On February 28, 2024, the authorities dissolved the political organization Kaoural Renouveau (Karoual Renew in English), citing “defamatory and subversive remarks,” against the junta. On December 20, 2023, the authorities dissolved the Observatory for Elections and Good Governance (Observatoire pour les élections et la bonne gouvernance), a civil society group tasked with observing the fairness and transparency of elections, accusing its chairman of “statements likely to disturb public order, including his forecasts on the participation rate in the June 2023 referendum” to amend the constitution.

Sangaré’s arrest comes as Mali’s relationships with the United Nations and neighboring countries have sharply deteriorated, raising concerns about human rights violations monitoring and reporting as well as accountability for abuses. On January 28, 2024, the Malian government announced that it would leave the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a move that would deprive victims of gross human rights violations from seeking justice through the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice.  

In December 2023, the UN peacekeeping mission, known as the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), officially pulled out from the country at the request of Malian authorities. MINUSMA included a strong human rights mandate. On August 30, Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have extended the work of a panel of experts tracking abuses by armed groups and Malian security forces and fighters from the Russia-linked Wagner Group, harming efforts toward accountability for conflict-related abuses.

The UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression said that “whistleblowers are essential for the public’s right to know, for the public’s participation in political affairs, democratic governance and accountability,” and “deserve the strongest protection in law and practice.”

Human Rights Watch and others have previously reported on serious abuses during counterinsurgency operations by the Malian security forces and allied fighters believed to be from the Wagner Group since 2022, including mass killings, torture and other ill-treatment, often in unauthorized detention facilities, and enforced disappearances. International law defines enforced disappearance as the detention of a person by state officials or their agents followed by the refusal to acknowledge the detention or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts.

Mali’s government should enact a law protecting government whistleblowers from arrest and other retributions, Human Rights Watch said.

“Colonel Sangaré took a bold step by choosing not to remain silent in the face of human rights abuses,” Allegrozzi said. “This case highlights the need for the government to protect those who publicly disclose wrongdoings.”

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