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Events of 2023

The leader of Mali’s junta, Lt. Col. Assimi Goita, center, attends an independence day military parade on September 22, 2022, in Bamako, Mali.

© 2022 AP Photo

The human rights situation in Mali significantly deteriorated in 2023, as attacks against civilians by Islamist armed groups linked to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and large-scale abusive counterterrorism operations by Malian armed forces and associated foreign fighters surged. Clashes between the Malian armed forces and a coalition of armed groups called the Coordination of Azawad Movements (Coordination des mouvements de l’Azawad, CMA)—an alliance of mostly ethnic Tuareg rebel groups that have sought independence for the Malian northern desert region they call Azawad—put a 2015 peace deal between the two parties at risk.

The violence exacerbated an already dire humanitarian crisis, with 8.8 million people requiring assistance and over 575,000 forced from their homes, including 375,000 internally displaced people and 205,000 refugees in neighboring countries as of August 2023.

The government dealt a severe blow to human rights monitoring and civilian protection by requesting the United Nations Security Council withdraw the UN peacekeeping mission to Mali, the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). The departure of MINUSMA, set for December, has raised concerns about exposure to heightened risk of violence for communities in northern and central Mali.

Authorities cracked down on the media and opposition voices, narrowing civic space.

The mounting abuses occurred amid a background of an ongoing political crisis. A referendum in June approved amendments to the constitution, including changes granting more powers to the president. The transitional military authorities said the referendum will pave the way to elections in 2024 and a return to civilian rule, but only 39 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot, with some regions, including Kidal, not holding the referendum at all, raising concerns about its fairness and validity. In September, government spokesman Abdoulaye Maiga announced that the presidential election scheduled for February 2024 would be postponed for “technical reasons,” including the adoption of a new constitution and a review of the electoral lists.

The transitional government, which came to power in a 2021 coup, undermined efforts to investigate the mounting allegations of atrocities by state actors. Impunity for past and ongoing abuses by all armed groups persisted.

The engagement of the Russia-linked Wagner Group, and the mounting allegations of summary executions and other abuses by them, intensified tensions between Mali and its regional and international partners—including France, the UN, and neighboring West African countries—increasing Mali’s political isolation.

Atrocities by Islamist Armed Groups

During 2023, Islamist armed groups aligned with the ISGS and Al-Qaeda carried out numerous unlawful attacks that killed hundreds of civilians as well as attacks killing scores of government security force personnel.

In areas under their control, Islamist armed groups raped women and girls, imposed zakat (religious tax), and implemented Sharia (Islamic law) and punishments via courts that did not adhere to fair trial standards. These groups also contributed to food insecurity by attacking those who did not conform to their vision of Islamic law, including by looting livestock and besieging cities and villages.

From January to April in Ménaka and Gao regions, clashes between the ISGS and the rival Al-Qaeda-linked Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa al-Muslimeen, JNIM), both seeking to control supply routes and increase their areas of influence, led to a sharp deterioration of the security situation, with hundreds of civilians killed.

In January, an armed clash between ISGS and JNIM fighters near the village of Teguerert, Ménaka region, largely populated by ethnic Dawsahak people, resulted in the burning of houses and massive displacement of the local population. More than 40 fighters from both groups were killed and dozens of civilians were wounded.

In February, ISGS fighters came to Konga, a settlement in the village of Kounsoum, Gao region, searching for a man they accused of collaborating with the Malian army. They did not find him and in retaliation killed his two wives.

In March, ISGS fighters threatened the population of Essaylal, Ménaka region, issuing an ultimatum for people to leave the area within three days. The majority of Essaylal residents then fled to seek refuge in Ménaka city.

On April 21, JNIM claimed responsibility for an April 18 attack in Nara, Koulikoro region, during which the chief of staff of Mali’s interim president, Oumar Traoré, was killed. Three other men, including a security guard, a contractor, and a driver, were also killed. On April 22, an attack in Sevaré, Mopti region, also claimed by JNIM, left at least 10 civilians dead and 60 injured as well as more than 20 buildings destroyed.

On April 23, ISGS fighters entered the village of Tannal Koyratadji, Gao region, killed two older men, injured at least seven men, and looted food and livestock.

In early May, ISGS fighters led two consecutive attacks on the village of Labezzanga, a coastal village along the Niger River, Gao region, where they killed four men, injured another, and looted livestock.

On May 20 and 23, ISGS fighters attacked the village of Seyna Gourma, Gao region. On May 20, they looted livestock. Three days later, they went door-to-door, searched homes, beat villagers, and again looted livestock.

On June 27, scores of ISGS fighters attacked Dangabari, Gaina, and other villages in Gabero municipality, Gao region, killing at least nine men and two boys in Dangabari, four men in Gaina, and looting livestock.

On August 6, JNIM fighters led a deadly attack in Bodio, killing 15 people, including 4 men, including an 18-year-old. They also looted livestock and civilian property and burned at least 10 homes.

On September 7, Islamist fighters attacked a boat traveling on the Niger River from Gao to Mopti. Human Rights Watch found that over 120 died in the boat attack.

Abuses by State Security Forces

Malian and allied foreign fighters apparently associated with the Russia-linked Wagner Group were implicated in hundreds of unlawful killings of civilians, mostly during large counterterrorism operations in central Mali.

On February 3, scores of “white” fighters in military uniforms and at least one Malian soldier carried out an operation in Séguéla village, Ségou region, searching for Islamist fighters. During the operation, they looted homes and shops, beat people, and arrested 17 men. On February 21, near Doura, Ségou region, villagers found the bodies of eight of the arrested men. The whereabouts of the remaining nine remain unknown.

On March 6, members of the Malian armed forces along with “white” fighters conducted an airborne operation in Sossobé village, Mopti region, during which they killed five civilian men, beat villagers, and looted property. They also arrested 21 men and took them away in helicopters. The whereabouts of those taken remain unknown.

On March 23 and 24, scores of Malian and “white” foreign soldiers accompanied by pro-government militiamen carried out an operation in Ouenkoro village, Mopti region, in which they killed at least 20 civilians, including a woman and a 6-year-old. They also beat people, looted property, and arrested 12 men, whom they took to an army camp in the town of Sofara, Mopti region, torturing them to force confessions regarding their affiliation or complicity with Islamist armed groups.

On April 22, scores of Malian soldiers carried out an operation in Trabakoro village, Nara region, searching for Islamist fighters, during which the soldiers killed 18 people: 14 children and 4 women.

Media reported that on June 15, a convoy of “white” fighters hit an improvised explosive device near the village of Keibané, Nara region, killing 2 and wounding 11. The fighters carried out a reprisal attack against local villagers, killing at least five.

On July 27, Malian soldiers executed four men and a child in Gadougou, an ethnic Fulani settlement in Nara region. Witnesses said the soldiers were searching for Islamist fighters.

On August 6, Malian soldiers and associated “white” fighters arrested 16 men and 1 boy in Sambani, Timbuktu region, suspecting them of collaborating with Islamist groups. The following day, villagers found the bodies of those arrested about one kilometer from Sambani.

Abuses of Civil and Political Rights

Threats, harassment, intimidation, and enforced disappearances of journalists, bloggers, and civil society activists continued.

On February 20, in Bamako, Mali’s capital, thugs broke into the office of the Press House (Maison de la presse), an umbrella organization bringing together several media groups, ransacked it, and disrupted a news conference held by members of a political opposition platform that had opposed the constitutional reform referendum.

On March 13, security forces arrested Mohamed Youssouf Bathily, a radio and television host, better known by the pseudonym Ras Bath, in Bamako for saying that former Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga, who died in detention in 2022, had been assassinated. On June 13, a Bamako court sentenced him to three years in prison.

On March 15, security forces in Bamako arrested Malian social media influencer Rokia Doumbia, known as “Rose vie chère,” for denouncing the transitional government’s “failure” to tackle inflation and insecurity in a TikTok video. Charged with “inciting riot” and “disrupting public order,” she was sentenced to one year in jail on August 2.

On April 6, masked gunmen abducted journalist Aliou Touré in Bamako after he attended a press conference calling for the release of Ras Bath. He was found unharmed four days later.

Accountability for Abuses

There was little progress in government investigations into several incidents of reported abuse.

On June 26, Human Rights Watch sent letters to Mali’s justice and defense ministers detailing its findings about abuses by members of the Malian armed forces during military operations in the villages of Ouenkoro, Séguéla, Sossobé, and Thioffol, in Mopti and Ségou regions, between December 2022 and March 2023. In its July 20 response, through the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, the government said it was not aware of any human rights violations, but “the public prosecutor in charge of the Specialized Judicial Unit, on the instructions of the Minister of Justice and Human Rights, opened a judicial investigation for war crimes and crimes against humanity against X” and “the findings of various investigations will be brought to the attention of national and international opinion in due course.” As of September 2023, Human Rights Watch was not aware of any progress in any of the promised inquiries.

On June 19, Malian authorities announced they would open an espionage prosecution against those responsible for a May 12 UN report accusing Malian troops and Wagner Group fighters of killing over 500 people, of whom most were summarily executed during a military operation in Moura, in central Mali, in March 2022. The public prosecutor, Ladji Sara, said in a statement that those behind the report are “all co-perpetrators or accomplices in the crimes of espionage, undermining the morale of the army or air force.”

On June 21, 2023, the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) issued a lifetime ban on Amadou Bamba, the former Malian women’s national basketball team coach, and sanctions on four other top officials. Sanctioned officials include the former national federation president, Harouna Maiga. In June 2021, Human Rights Watch issued a report about the sexual extortion of children and cover-ups of abuse in the Mali Basketball Federation. In July 2021, Malian authorities arrested and indicted Bamba, then the head coach of Mali’s under-18 girls’ national basketball team, who is awaiting trial for “pedophilia, attempted rape, and molestation.” However, more than two years after the widespread sexual abuse came to light, survivors and whistleblowers still live under threat and cannot safely play. A teenage whistleblower faced threats and lost career opportunities after reporting her sexual abuse and subsequently sued the federation for failing to protect her from retaliation.

The International Criminal Court concluded the trial of Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud, a former Islamist group commander, on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including rape and sexual slavery committed in 2012-2013. A verdict is pending at time of writing.

Key International Actors

The deployment in late 2021 of the Russian Wagner Group, described by the Malian government as “military trainers,” and subsequent allegations of atrocities against them and Malian security forces, brought sharp condemnation from Mali’s bilateral and multilateral partners, including the United States, France, the European Union, the UN, and the Economic Community of West African States. In February, the EU sanctioned the head of the Wagner Group in Mali.

Also in February, the Malian authorities ordered MINUSMA’s human rights chief, Guillaume Ngefa-Atondoko Andali, to leave the country, accusing him of “destabilizing and subversive actions.”

On June 16, the foreign minister, Abdoulaye Diop, told the UN Security Council to withdraw MINUSMA “without delay” and rejected the UN report on the Moura massacre. The government denounced what it considered to be the “instrumentalization and politicization of the human rights issue.”

On August 30, Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have extended sanctions against eight people suspected of sabotaging the 2015 peace deal and the work of a panel of experts tracking abuses by armed groups and Malian security forces. The cessation of the panel’s activities could harm efforts toward accountability for conflict-related abuses in a country already marked by shrinking civic space and an increased crackdown on dissent and independent media.