Mali: Killings, ‘Disappearances’ in Military Operations

Investigate Alleged Security Force Abuses in Mopti Region

(Bamako) – Malian soldiers have allegedly killed at least 34 villagers, forcibly disappeared at least 16 people, and severely mistreated detainees during counterterrorism operations in Mali’s central Mopti region, Human Rights Watch said today. Mali’s transitional government should conduct credible and impartial investigations into these incidents. All were committed since the transitional government took power in an August 18, 2020 coup. “Mali’s security forces have shown scant regard for human life during recent counterterrorism operations,” said Corinne Dufka, Sahel director at Human Rights Watch. “Committing serious abuses in the name of security only fuels recruitment into abusive armed groups and undermines trust by local populations.” The government said it had opened investigations into incidents in the towns of Libé and Kobou, but family members of victims told Human Rights Watch that the authorities had not contacted them. Mali’s military prosecutors should independently investigate the allegations and suspend officers implicated in serious abuses. The Defense Ministry should ensure that gendarme military police, mandated to promote discipline and safeguard the rights of detainees, are present in all military operations. Human Rights Watch interviewed in person and by telephone 43 people with knowledge of seven incidents in which the security forces allegedly committed serious abuses. The interviews, between November 2020 and April 2021, included witnesses, local community leaders, government officials, and foreign diplomats. The incidents took place between October 2020 and March 2021 in and around the towns, villages, or hamlets of Boni, Feto Hore Niwa, Kobou, Libé, Solla, and Sokoura. The Malian security forces allegedly committed the abuses during military operations in response to the presence of Islamist armed groups largely linked to Al-Qaeda. The findings build on Human Rights Watch research in central Mali since 2015. Human Rights Watch is also documenting serious abuses by Islamist armed groups and ethnic militias in central Mali during the same period, including the summary executions of civilians and the indiscriminate use of improvised explosive devices. These findings will be published in an upcoming report.

Witnesses described how on March 23 soldiers in Boni detained, blindfolded, and severely beat dozens of bus passengers after finding suspicious material in the baggage compartment. At least 13 of the passengers have been “disappeared.” Ten witnesses described an October 22, 2020 army operation in and around Libé village during which the security forces allegedly killed 25 villagers including women, children, and older people, many as they tried to flee. One villager described seeing soldiers execute six men they had detained minutes before. “The soldiers marched the men into an abandoned shop,” he said. “One [soldier] who’d taken up position at the door opened fire. They lay there, dying as the floor flooded with blood.” All parties to Mali’s armed conflict are bound by Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and other treaty and customary laws of war, which provide for the humane treatment of captured combatants and civilians in custody. Individuals who commit serious violations of the laws of war, including summary executions and torture, may be prosecuted for war crimes. Mali is a party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which has opened an investigation into alleged war crimes committed in Mali since 2012.

Human Rights Watch on April 7 sent a letter to the Malian government detailing the alleged abuses in this report. In its April 13 response, the general secretary of the Ministry of Defense and Veterans Affairs said that for all of the incidents cited in the report, “investigations have been opened and are ongoing,” and noted that some members of the army have been questioned. The letter added that investigations into the Libé and Kobou allegations have been hampered by the precarious security situation and the reluctance of some witnesses to provide testimony.

“Promising to investigate abuses is a positive step, but the Malian government has failed to make good on many previous such commitments,” Dufka said. “The Malian authorities should rein in abusive units and do much more to ensure discipline in operations, hold abusers to account, and prevent further atrocities.” For details on the recent alleged abuses by Malian security forces, please see below. Alleged Abuses by the Malian Army in Mopti Region Boni, March 2021 On March 18, security forces in Boni, Douentza cercle [administrative area] allegedly executed Boucary Boulde, 37, and Salmane Hamne Noungary, 35, minutes after a soldier was killed and another gravely injured by an improvised explosive device. Three witnesses said a soldier targeted the victims at random out of a group of traders passing by on their way to the Boni market. One witness said: We found ourselves behind a convoy of soldiers when the explosion went off around 9:10 a.m. The soldiers ordered everyone on the road to lie down. Boucary and Salmane happened to be just 10 meters behind the FAMa [Forces Armées Maliennes, or Malian army] vehicles. After firing in the air, a soldier dragged them from their motorcycles and executed them point-blank, no questions asked. Boukary was still alive but no one dared help him; he died a few minutes later. Both were shot at least two times. Later, soldiers severely beat and robbed over a dozen family members waiting for permission to take the bodies for burial. “As we waited by the bodies, the FAMa started beating and kicking us,” a family member said. “After throwing us in their vehicles, they stole our phones, eight motorcycles, and money.” On March 23, security force members performing a routine control at a checkpoint near Boni found a military uniform and boots in the baggage compartment of a bus that had left Bamako, the capital, on March 22. Perhaps because they felt the uniform was being used by an armed Islamist, the soldiers bound and blindfolded about 35 male passengers and took them to the military camp, where they severely beat them over many hours.

The circumstances or whereabouts of at least 13 of these men remains unknown. Numerous witnesses to the arrests and mistreatment expressed concern that the men were beaten to death in custody. Human Rights Watch received credible information that the security forces buried a number of bodies in a common grave on March 25, approximately one kilometer from their camp.

Human Rights Watch spoke with 15 people with knowledge of the incident, including passengers, family members of the disappeared, and villagers, and reviewed a video showing 13 men after their 24-hour detention, who had visible signs of having been severely mistreated. Twelve of the disappeared men, whose names family members provided to Human Rights Watch, were from Burkina Faso. The family members said the men had been living as refugees in Bamako for several years and were on their way back to their villages given the improving security situation in Burkina Faso. “We arrived at the checkpoint around 5 p.m.,” one passenger said. “The soldiers ordered us down and checked our IDs. Our drama started when they found the Rangers [boots] and uniform. They flew into a rage, tearing clothing from the luggage with which they blindfolded us and bound our hands.” A bystander said: “They divided 35 men into three groups, according to their ages, put them in military vehicles, and drove in the direction of their camp, 500 meters away. They didn’t harm or detain the eight female passengers.” Describing the mistreatment, one passenger said, “The beating started in front of the bus. They kicked and beat us in a savage way with belts, tree branches, and rifle butts.” The abuse continued in the military camp. “They beat and pummeled us all night,” another passenger said. “I was in severe pain. I was burned with a cigarette. Throughout the night I heard people groaning, crying, asking for mercy. We all understood why they wanted to know about the military clothing, but they hardly asked about it, rather insulting us, accusing us of being terrorists, and threatening to kill us. I thought I would die – no one slept.” Villagers said that of the 35 detained, around 20 were freed the next day. But Boni residents and family members of the passengers said that the whereabouts of the remaining men are unknown. One formerly detained man said he thinks his 23-year-old brother died of the mistreatment: At night during the lulls [in abuse], I talked softly with my brother. The last time we talked, he groaned … saying he couldn’t bear it, he could hardly speak. I told him to hold on. I passed out and when I came to, he no longer answered. The next day, soldiers took me and several others out of the camp. As they released us, a soldier said, “Go, you have survived.” It was this that made me think many others, including my brother, were dead. Feto Hore Niwa Hamlet, January 28, 2021 On January 28, Mama Ag, 80, and his 11-year-old grandson, Hama Agaly, were found to be missing from their home in a small hamlet approximately 16 kilometers from the village of Kobou. The family member who last saw them told Human Rights Watch that he suspects the military forcibly disappeared them: Every morning I walk a few kilometers to take my sheep to a watering hole and always leave the old man, who is blind, in care of the boy. When I returned about 2 p.m. they were gone. Around the house were tracks of large vehicles and boot prints in front of Mama Ag’s house. I followed the tire tracks in the direction of Mondoro and a kilometer away saw the stick the boy used to guide the old man lying next to the path. A shepherd I met on the way told me he’d seen a large military convoy pass by their shack at around 10 a.m. It is this – the baton and the sighting of the convoy – which makes me think they were taken by the FAMa. A community elder said: “I’ve helped the family look everywhere for them – in the bush, in neighboring villages, and in prisons in Hombori, Douentza, Sevare, and Bamako. They are nowhere to be found.” Kobou Village, January 13, 2021 On January 13, dozens of Malian security force members accompanied by several soldiers believed to be with the French operation, Barkhane, conducted a cordon-and-search operation in Kobou village. Five witnesses said the operation lasted from approximately 5 a.m. until noon. The Malian soldiers detained four villagers during the operation and put them into at least two Malian army vehicles that headed north. Two of the detained men, Mamoudou Hama Diallo, 31, and Hamidou Yero Diallo, 50, were found dead a day later 10 kilometers north of Kobou. The cause of death is unclear. A third man, Amadoure Diallo, 48, has been forcibly disappeared. The fourth man was freed after about two weeks in detention. One witness described the operation: “There were around 10 vehicles – pickups, trucks and a few armored cars. They blocked all exits and conducted a thorough search [of the village]. A helicopter flew overhead.” None of the witnesses described any fighting between opposing forces that day. The soldiers separated the four detained men from the rest of the villagers early on; two of them appeared to have been beaten when taken into custody. A witness said: I was saying my prayers at home when three soldiers – two Malian and one white soldier – searched my house and led my wife and me about 40 meters away, where dozens of villagers were seated. A Barkhane soldier filmed us and a few other white soldiers milled about. The FAMa questioned us about the terrorists, warning the youth not to get wound up in the jihadist life. We were not beaten but one Malian soldier threatened to kill us. A few hours later, the Barkhane soldier said the women, and later the rest of us, should be freed. The witnesses said the French soldiers advised the Malian soldiers against arresting villagers with insufficient proof including, as one witness said, “one who had a video of a terrorist on his phone and another for having short pants and a long beard.” He said, “the Frenchman advised that there needed to be more solid evidence to arrest someone.” Another witness described the four detainees being taken away: I saw the FAMa dragging the four men, violently, by their necks. Mamoudou Hama Diallo and Hamidou Yero Diallo walked, zigzagging, with great difficulty. I didn’t see blood, but they could barely stand. The FAMa blindfolded them and tied their hands with their turbans, and then threw them like sacks of rice into the trucks. A witness who was in the convoy said that it stopped in a wooded area about an hour later, where the four detainees were taken off the trucks. “The detainees were moaning in pain,” said the witness. “One man especially … I heard the soldiers saying, ‘He’s going to die, he will not survive.’” Three villagers saw the bodies of Mamoudou Hama Diallo and Hamidou Yero Diallo on January 14 in a remote forested area known locally as Boga Laiga, 10 kilometers northwest of Kobou. An elder said: On January 14, I was notified by a local shepherd that he’d discovered two bodies. Such news spreads quickly and a group of us went to see for ourselves. They were buried in a shallow grave. I clearly recognized their faces and clothing.…They were blindfolded, their hands tied. We dug a deeper grave and placed tree branches on top to mark the grave. We buried them quickly, so as not to attract attention, especially as we suspected the army in this killing. Another villager described their bodies: I didn’t see blood, gunshot wounds, or gashes on their head, faces, or upper bodies. I didn’t see bullet casings either. I can’t speak for the rest of their bodies because they were half buried. We talked among ourselves and guessed they’d been strangled. The tire tracks around the place were everywhere and headed north. The place is isolated, but we know the forest inside and out; you can’t hide bodies in our area. A January 15 communiqué from the Malian Army High Command said the four men were members of “armed terrorist groups” captured during heavy fighting and that “three of the four lost their lives while being transferred from Boulikessi to Sévaré.” The communiqué said an investigation had been opened to clarify how the men died. Solla Hamlet, January 12, 2021 At about 4 p.m. on January 12, a convoy of Malian soldiers patrolling through Solla hamlet allegedly fired on a small group of men gathered near the local well to water their animals, killing three of them. The victims, all residents of the hamlet, were Amadou Allaye Diallo, 25, Oumarou Amadou Diallo, 30, and Haméré Diallo, 55. Two witnesses said they heard a few bursts from a semi-automatic rifle fired as the military convoy passed through the area and noted that they found no weapons on or near the victims. One of the witnesses said: The military convoy passed through our hamlet going from south to north. I saw it from a distance as I was bringing my animals to the well. We all fled to hide in the bush. A few minutes later, I heard a string of gunshots ring out and then the sound of the convoy as it continued its march. There was no sound of a battle, just the one burst of gunshots. After the convoy was well out of the area, we went in the direction of the gunshots – to the well – and found the dead men. The other witness described the bodies: They