Thousands of northerners who experienced human rights abuses during the occupation of Mali’s north are struggling to find redress amidst concerns that a climate of impunity is continuing and the government’s control in many areas of the north is at best shaky.
People in the north were exposed to forced disappearances, torture, summary executions and sexual abuse, with most of the offences committed after March 2012 when Islamist extremists occupied large parts of territory.
Investigations begin, but hesitantly
“Investigations into crimes committed during the occupation and its aftermath have just started,” said Guillaume Ngefa, head of the human rights division within MINUSMA, the UN’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali. “While judges and prosecutors are stalled by an instable security situation in the north many victims have not been given adequate legal assistance or access to the judiciary,” Ngefa continued.
The arrival of occupying forces in March 2012 triggered the exodus of thousands of people fleeing south or into neighbouring countries. Those who remained were subjected to a harsh form of Sharia, or Islamic law. Punishment for crimes like theft and adultery included arbitrary detentions, whippings, amputations and even death. Women were particularly targeted, facing beatings and arrests for not wearing a veil. The armed groups also enrolled children as fighters.
The legacy of occupation
When President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita came into office in September 2013, he promised to address crimes committed during the occupation and to put an end to a long culture of impunity.
But there is a huge backlog of cases to deal with. “We have documented more than 500 cases of violations in the north since the conflict started in January 2012”, said Saloum Traoré, head of Amnesty International (AI) in Mali. AI, the Malian Association for Human Rights (AMDH) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have between them registered hundreds of cases of sexual abuse, amputations and summary executions.
The caseload includes the executions of over 150 Malian government soldiers at Aguelhoc, allegedly by the separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, (MNLA), in collaboration with its then ally, Ansar Dine, in January 2012. The MNLA has fiercely denied any involvement in the Aguelhok. But the MNLA’s forces are also accused of acts of sexual violence and recruiting children into armed groups.
Drissa Traoré, a legal officer in the AMDH’s Bamako officer referred to 50 cases of rape allegedly committed by the MNLA. Senior Islamists, including Islamist police chief in Gao, Aliou Mahamatou Touré, and his counterpart in Timbuktu ,Houka Houka have been the object of complaints.
South of the occupied areas, AI and AMDH point to cases reported from villages in the Mopti area, which hosted large communities of displaced northerners.
Legal machinery still not in place
While the government and specifically its Ministry of Defense acknowledges that crimes committed during the conflict need to be addressed, exactly how and when this will happen is not yet clear.
Several families of victims have sought justice for the loss of or injury to family members, a majority with the help of local lawyers. More than 30 families have filed complaints and missing person reports with the police and gendarmerie, as well as written letters to prosecutors detailing crimes, according to AMDH.
But the legal mechanics are complicated. Observers highlight deficiencies in the Malian legal system, which lacks sufficient numbers of judges, prosecutors and forensic experts, and is hampered by logistical and financial constraints. Cases often need testimony from witnesses delivered to official investigators, but this is not easy to obtain at present.
“Continued clashes and insecurity make it difficult for judges and forensic experts to travel to the north to conduct investigations”, Guillaume Ngefa said. Security conditions remain difficult. The north is stabilized by a UN peacekeeping force and around 1,000 French troops, though attacks still occur in many of the northern areas where the abuses occurred. On October 3, nine UN peacekeepers were killed and three wounded in a roadside bomb in Kidal. This brought the number of UN peacekeepers in Mali killed since MINUSMA took over from the African Union force AFISMA in July last year to 30.
Where are the courts?
Mali’s Justice Ministry has deployed mobile information clinics in the north to gather victim testimony and provide some level of victim support. In principle, cases reported will be referred directly to courts in the north for prosecution, but those courts are not yet up and running. When AMDH prepared cases against members of the Islamic police in Gao and Timbuktu, witnesses had to go south to Bamako, which hosts the court assigned to handle crimes committed in the north.
Support to those seeking justice is available from several international and national NGOs involved in pursuing human rights violations. But there is little funding for follow up action and the bringing of court cases. Legal costs are prohibitively high for most Malians. It often falls to individuals to track cases with the local authorities.
Soldiers face questions too
Concerns on human rights violations are not confined to the north and the alleged perpetrators are not exclusively jihadist and separatist fighters. In November 2013 AMDH filed its first case representing 23 victims of violations allegedly committed by the Malian armed forces following a military coup in the capital Bamako in March 2012 which saw rival army factions pitted against each other.
HRW has collected testimonies implicating Malian soldiers in serious abuses. The Malian authorities have promised to take action where appropriate. But Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher with HRW, warned that only a few cases had led to further investigations, and none of those allegedly responsible for exactions brought to justice.
AMDH President Moctar Mariko warned of instances where civilians had either disappeared or been taken by the Malian armed forces. “Questions by family members as to the whereabouts of their relatives were ignored or left unanswered. Others were afraid to even ask,” Mariko said.
Alou Namfe, a government prosecutor assigned to handle crimes committed during the occupation of the north criticised the inaction shown by both the courts and the gendarmerie in grappling with offences. “Judicial officers requesting the gendarmerie to investigate certain conflict-related crimes have been ignored and complaints filed with the courts so far have not been acted upon,” Namfe warned.
Arrest does not mean prosecution
However, some action has been taken, albeit with mixed results. According to figures from the Malian authorities, since January 2013 at least 495 men believed to be members of the armed groups have been arrested; but up to 300 of the same men have since been released. In some cases, investigators were unable to confirm their identity or affiliation with the fighting factions. Others were release in prisoner exchanges between the armed groups and the Bamako government. Former Timbuktu police boss Houka Houka was amongst those let go. There are reports of many other involved in the Islamist occupation simply leaving the country.
Alou Namfe is frustrated by the lack of justice. “There are cases where witnesses and victims have testified and the prosecutor has opened a case, and still the offender is released,” Namfe pointed out.
Guillaume Ngefa saw hope for change. “The problem of impunity dates back to the independence from France over 60 years ago”, Ngefa explained. “Previous peace agreements have struggled to look into the question of human rights; in some cases the offenders were never tried. This time I believe there is a political will to deal with crimes committed during the armed conflict.”
Moctar Mariko said the guilty should not evade justice. “We are worried that the big fish, the commanders responsible for these actions, will be released while others remain in jail.” Mariko stressed the courts had a job to do. “Prisoners should not be released before the judiciary has had time to finish their investigations.”
The north remains vulnerable
There is concern too about a new chapter of violence in the north. Complaints of human rights violations and the systematic victimisation of Tuareg and Arabs helped fuel the rebellion that broke out in January 2012. Human rights activists warn that the actions of small groups of Jihadists, staging attacks and ambushes in the north, will lead to new waves of reprisals from the Malian military, with Tuaregs and Arabs again targeted indiscriminately. On 24 September a group of Tuareg men were detained by members of AQMI, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, in the region of Kidal. The men were accused of being informers to the French forces. A couple of days later villagers found the head of one of the men at a stall in the local market.
“In many cases… the population and the justice know where the offenders are but are reluctant to give them up, especially if they are from the same ethnic group. If there is no justice, others might seek revenge,” said Mariko.