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Rights group urges Mali’s military junta to ensure accountability for past atrocities and respect rights

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Mali’s military junta should fully respect human rights and judicial independence and support efforts to ensure accountability for past atrocities, including those involving the security forces, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday. The transitional authorities should promptly provide a specific timeline for the return to democratic civilian rule, upholding the right of Malians to elect their leaders.

On August 18, 2020, Malian military officers deposed the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, demanding improved governance and management of Mali’s security situation. The coup followed months of protests by a broad coalition of opposition political parties, religious leaders, and activist groups protesting high unemployment, instability in Mali’s north and center, and government corruption.  

“Mali’s deteriorating human rights and security climate has not fundamentally changed because of a change in government,” said Corinne Dufka, Sahel director at Human Rights Watch. “The transitional leaders need to scrupulously respect human rights and the independence of the judiciary and support progress on investigating past atrocities by all sides, including the military.”

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The coup leaders, calling themselves the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), detained a dozen former government officials, including President Keita, the prime minister, and several generals, at the Kati Military Barracks or placed them under house arrest. The authorities should ensure their humane treatment, as called for by partner governments, the United Nations, and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. They should also permit access to counsel and family members and bring legally recognizable charges or release those who remain in detention.

Mali has faced instability since a 2012 coup, which coincided with a takeover of the northern regions by separatist ethnic Tuareg and Al-Qaeda-linked armed groups. Since then, the security situation has continued to deteriorate, despite a 2013 French-led international military intervention, a 2015 peace agreement envisioned to reestablish government control over the north, and the presence of a UN peacekeeping force. Since 2015, attacks by armed Islamist groups have spread into central Mali, exacerbating tension between agrarian and pastoralist communities. 

Grave abuses have steadily increased since 2015. Human Rights Watch has extensively documented serious violations of international humanitarian law and abuses of human rights committed by armed Islamist groups, state security forces, and ethnic self-defense groups. Few abuses have been investigated.

“Mali’s recent history has been punctuated by massacres and other atrocities by forces that kill, burn, and loot with little fear of being brought to account,” Dufka said. “This climate of impunity fuels support for abusive militias, undermines development, and saps confidence in state institutions.”

Armed Islamist groups have killed civilians in village attacks, indiscriminately planted improvised explosive devices on major roadways, killed UN peacekeepers, and executed captured Malian soldiers. They have also killed local leaders deemed government collaborators, beat those engaged in cultural practices they had forbidden, and imposed their version of Sharia, or Islamic law, via courts that did not adhere to fair trial standards.

Since 2015, ethnic militias have killed over 600 civilians in hundreds of incidents in central and northern Mali. The violence includes 2 massacres in the village of Ogossagou – in 2019 and 2020 – which killed over 180 Peuhl civilians, and numerous lethal attacks on Dogon villages. 

The government had repeatedly pledged, but failed, to disarm and dissolve the increasingly well-armed militias responsible for these attacks. In many places, they control checkpoints, extort villagers, and have become a law unto themselves. The authorities have also been slow to respond to urgent appeals for help from villagers under imminent attack by various armed groups.

Human Rights Watch has also documented allegations that Malian security forces executed scores of suspects during counterterrorism operations, while dozens have been forcibly disappeared. The UN has documented a worrying increase in allegations of summary executions in recent months. Furthermore, the national intelligence agency has detained suspects of terrorism-related offenses in unauthorized detention facilities and without due process.

The transitional authorities should address the failure of the military to adequately protect civilians and disband murderous militias. They should hold to account commanders implicated in abuses, including for allegations of extrajudicial killings by the army in Diourra, Boulekessi, Nantaka, Maleimana, and Binedama.

There has similarly been scant progress obtaining justice for gross abuses committed by other armed groups. Judges rarely open investigations into atrocity cases, and when they do, cases advance slowly, if at all.

Hundreds of detainees are held in extended pretrial detention due to the courts’ inability to adequately process cases. Local groups said the government was reluctant to question or charge militia leaders credibly implicated in massacres, favoring short-term reconciliation efforts envisioned to mitigate communal tension.

“Mali’s transitional government has an opportunity to promote greater respect for rights, justice, and the rule of law on which stability and progress depend,” Dufka said. “Failing to do so will mean a continuation of Mali’s cycles of violence and reprisal.”

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