Nairobi — Mali's government should step up efforts to investigate and prosecute serious rights abuses committed by all sides during Mali's recent armed conflict. On March 17, 2014, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita expressing concern about the lack of justice for abuses during the armed conflict.
After assuming office last year, President Keita pledged to address long-standing impunity. The arrests in late 2013 and early 2014 of over 20 soldiers, including former coup leader General Amadou Haya Sanogo, for the torture and enforced disappearance of 21 elite "Red Berets" in 2012, represents meaningful progress in this area. However, there have been scant efforts to hold accountable those involved in serious abuses committed during the 2012-2013 armed conflict in the north involving ethnic Tuareg separatists and Islamist armed groups.
"The victims of abuses committed during Mali's recent armed conflict and their families await and deserve justice for their suffering, regardless of who was responsible," said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The government's progress on the 'Red Berets' case should encourage investigations into the many other cases demanding much-needed accountability."
Human Rights Watch and other international and domestic organizations documented hundreds of alleged war crimes and other serious abuses committed during the armed conflict. These include summary executions of up to 153 Malian soldiers in Aguelhok by armed groups that occupied the north; widespread looting and pillage, and sexual violence by the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA); and the recruitment and use of child combatants, amputations, and destruction of shrines by Islamist armed groups. Malian soldiers were also implicated in numerous abuses during the 2013 offensive to take back the north, including 26 extrajudicial executions, 11 enforced disappearances, and over 70 cases of torture or ill-treatment of suspected Islamist rebels, all documented by Human Rights Watch.
Numerous families of victims told Human Rights Watch that they have pursued justice for the loss or injury of their loved ones, 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. Many of these victims and families are being assisted by the Malian Association of Human Rights, the International Federation for Human Rights, and the Malian Association of Jurists.
Almost none of their cases have been investigated, and none of those allegedly responsible brought to justice, Human Rights Watch said. Judicial officers told Human Rights Watch that their requests to the gendarmerie to investigate certain conflict-related crimes have been ignored; similarly, some family members said that complaints filed with the courts were not acted upon.
Mali's judiciary faces many challenges, including the absence of adequate judicial authorities in the north and elsewhere; severe logistical constraints; and ongoing insecurity in northern areas where the majority of abuses occurred. However, these challenges should not be used to justify inaction, Human Rights Watch said. The government should act on complaints filed and proceed with investigations by interviewing witnesses, building dossiers, and collecting forensic evidence.
The government should also developa strategy to ensure theinvestigation and prosecution ofthose from all sidesin the conflict who are responsible for serious crimes; address, with international donor assistance,the deficiencies in its criminal justice system; ensure counsel for the accused; and provide adequatesecurity for judicialpersonnel handling sensitive cases. The government should oppose any amnesty for serious crimes in any future negotiated settlement among the warring factions, Human Rights Watch said.
"This government has the opportunity to break from a past where victims had no hope for justice and perpetrators no fear of being investigated much less held accountable for their crimes," Dufka said. "Ensuring impartial justice, case by case, is hugely important not only for victims but also for the hope it represents in breaking the cycle of violence, fear, and impunity that has blighted the lives of Malians for many years."