Burkina Faso’s security forces executed 31 unarmed detainees on April 9, 2020, in the northern town of Djibo, shooting some in their eyes and hands, Human Rights Watch said on Monday, citing witnesses in the West African nation. The men were apparently killed just hours after being arrested, unarmed, during a government counterterrorism operation.
Human Rights Watch said the government should immediately and impartially investigate the killings and hold to account all those responsible, regardless of rank.
The apparent massacre in Djibo, about 200 kilometers north of Ouagadougou, the capital, occurred amid a worsening security and humanitarian crisis in Burkina Faso’s northern Sahel region. The growth of Islamist armed groups linked to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahel (ISGS) has fueled violence that had displaced over 775,000 people by late March.
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“The Burkinabè security forces apparently executed 31 men in a brutal mockery of a counterterrorism operation that may amount to a war crime and could fuel further atrocities,” said Corinne Dufka, Sahel director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should stop the abuse, fully investigate this terrible incident, and commit to a rights-respecting counterterrorism strategy.”
Human Rights organization said it interviewed 17 people with knowledge of the April 9 killings, including 12 witnesses to the arrests and later burial of the victims.
According to HRW, the witnesses provided a list of victims, all men from the Peuhl ethnic group, as well as maps indicating where the men were executed and later buried.
“Beginning in 2016, armed Islamist groups, which have largely recruited from the nomadic Peuhl or Fulani community, have attacked security force posts and civilians throughout Burkina Faso, but mostly in the Sahel region bordering Mali and Niger. Human Rights Watch said it has since 2017 documented the killing of over 300 civilians by armed Islamist groups and the killing of several hundred men by government security forces for their alleged support of these groups.
“The residents speculated that they had been targeted because of the recent presence of some armed Islamists around Djibo. “The jihadists have been roaming around lately,” one said, according to Human Rights Watch. “It’s like we’re punished for their mere presence.”
Local residents said scores of security force personnel were involved in the April 9 operation, which lasted from around 10 a.m., when the arrests began, until around 1:30 p.m., when they heard several bursts of gunfire. The victims were arrested from several neighborhoods, or “sectors,” while they were watering their animals, walking, or sitting in front of their homes. They were taken away in a convoy of about 10 military vehicles including pickup trucks, an armored car, and motorcycles.
Residents said around 4 p.m., they ventured to where they had heard the gunfire and found the bodies of 31 men who were last seen in the security forces’ custody. Several had bound eyes or hands. Residents said none of the men were armed.
“The Burkina Faso authorities should urgently and impartially investigate this alleged war crime and suspend any implicated security force commander pending the investigation’s outcome,” Dufka said.
Human Rights Watch said the European Union, France, and the United States should press the government to conduct a credible investigation and hold those responsible to account. They should ensure that any military assistance provided to the Burkinabè security forces is not being used by units responsible for this or other atrocities for which no one has been held to account.