Burkina Faso should “credibly and independently” investigate the alleged extrajudicial executions of 12 men detained by gendarmes on May 11, 2020, during a counterterrorism operation near the eastern town of Fada N’Gourma, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.
The 12 men were shot in the head, according to witnesses, prompting the prosecutor for Fada N’Gourma, in Est Region, to announce an investigation into the killings on May 13.
In his May 13 statement, the Fada N’Gourma prosecutor said Burkina Faso’s Defense and Security Forces had detained 25 people suspected of “acts of terrorism” from Tanwalbougou during the night of May 11 to 12, and that “Unfortunately, 12 of them died during the same night in the cells in which they were being held.
The statement said judicial police officers, gendarmes from Fada N’Gourma, and health officers were investigating the incident. The gendarme post at Tanwalbougou is under the direct command of gendarmes in Fada N’Gourma, about 50 kilometers away.
The alleged killings occurred amid a worsening security and humanitarian crisis in Burkina Faso, which, since 2016, has been grappling with violence by Islamist armed groups linked to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahel.
Beginning in 2016, these groups, which have largely recruited from the nomadic Peuhl or Fulani community, have attacked security force posts and civilians throughout Burkina Faso.
But Human Rights Watch said executing civilians in a cell was not the best way to combat terrorism.
“Suspects winding up dead hours after being taken into custody during counterterrorism operations is a strong indication of foul play,” said Corinne Dufka, Sahel director at Human Rights Watch. “Killing detainees in the name of security is both unlawful and counterproductive. Those found responsible for these deaths in detention should be fully and fairly prosecuted.”
Human Rights Watch said the investigation should be transferred to the capital, Ouagadougou, “to allow greater independence, impartiality, and security for witnesses, and its findings should be made public.”
In addition, “the commander of the Tanwalbougou gendarme post, where the men in custody died, should immediately be placed on administrative leave pending the outcome” while “the Burkinabè government should seek necessary forensic and other technical assistance from international partners.”
According to the human rights organization, it has since 2017 documented the killing of over 300 civilians by armed Islamist groups. Government security forces have killed several hundred men for their alleged support of these groups, including 31 men allegedly executed in the northern town of Djibo on April 9.