Inside Mali’s lingering political crisis that has left many dead

Security forces in Mali have used excessive force in responding to at-times violent protests by the political opposition, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday. 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 by high unemployment, ongoing instability in Mali’s north and center, and perceived state corruption. Although the Economic Community of West Africa 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 said its 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 and 11. 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.”

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