Nairobi — Burkina Faso authorities should credibly and independently investigate alleged extrajudicial executions of 12 men detained by gendarmes on May 11, 2020 during a counterterrorism operation near the eastern town of Fada N'Gourma, Human Rights Watch said today. Witnesses who saw and buried the bodies said it appeared the men had all been shot in the head.
On May 13, the prosecutor for Fada N'Gourma, in Est Region, announced an investigation into the killings. The investigation should be transferred to the capital, Ouagadougou, to allow greater independence, impartiality, and security for witnesses, and its findings should be made public. The commander of the Tanwalbougou gendarme post, where the men in custody died, should immediately be placed on administrative leave pending the outcome. The Burkinabè government should seek necessary forensic and other technical assistance from international partners.
"Suspects winding up dead hours after being taken into custody during counterterrorism operations is a strong indication of foul play," said Corinne Dufka, Sahel director at Human Rights Watch. "Killing detainees in the name of security is both unlawful and counterproductive. Those found responsible for these deaths in detention should be fully and fairly prosecuted."
Human Rights Watch interviewed by phone 13 people with knowledge of the incident. The interviews, with people in and around Fada N'Gourma and from Ouagadougou, included 4 witnesses to the arrests and 5 witnesses to the retrieval of bodies and burial of the victims. Witnesses provided a list of 12 victims, all men from the Peuhl ethnic group. The dead included at least one set of brothers and a man of about 70.
The alleged killings occurred amid a worsening security and humanitarian crisis in Burkina Faso, which, since 2016, has been grappling with violence by Islamist armed groups linked to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahel. Beginning in 2016, these groups, which have largely recruited from the nomadic Peuhl or Fulani community, have attacked security force posts and civilians throughout Burkina Faso.
Human Rights Watch has since 2017 documented the killing of over 300 civilians by armed Islamist groups. Government security forces have killed several hundred men for their alleged support of these groups, including 31 men allegedly executed in the northern town of Djibo on April 9.
In his May 13 statement, the Fada N'Gourma prosecutor said that Burkina Faso's Defense and Security Forces had detained 25 people suspected of "acts of terrorism" from Tanwalbougou during the night of May 11 to 12, and that "Unfortunately, 12 of them died during the same night in the cells in which they were being held."
The statement said that judicial police officers, gendarmes from Fada N'Gourma, and health officers were investigating the incident. The gendarme post at Tanwalbougou is under the direct command of gendarmes in Fada N'Gourma, about 50 kilometers away.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the arrests took place between 1:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. during an operation on market day in the town of Pentchangou, 5 kilometers from Tanwalbougou. They said that during the approximately hour-long operation, defense and security force soldiers, along with several members of a village-based defense force, known asVolontaires pour la défense de la patrie (VDP), blocked the village entrances and arrested numerous Peuhl men who were trading in the market, near the mosque, or in the street. They dragged some out of hiding places. The convoy left in the direction of Tanwalbougou.
"My arrival for market day in Pentchangou coincided with the arrival of the soldiers and a few VDFs," a witness said. "The soldiers were in a few vehicles and the VDF on motorcycles. All were armed with automatic weapons." A community leader who investigated the incident said, "People living around the Tanwalbougou gendarmerie told me they saw the gendarmes and a few VDF returning to the base with many detainees around 4 p.m."
"I lost two brothers that day," one man said. "As soon as the soldiers arrived, we took off running. I saw two vehicles and five soldiers, dressed in black t-shirts and camouflage pants. It was a manhunt ... they were arresting any Peuhl man they saw."
A woman working in the market said: "From where I hid, I saw a man running, but soldiers blocked the village exits. Two soldiers and another man in civilian clothing, all armed with military rifles, chased him, but the man was able to hide in a house. The soldiers turned their attention on another man, who they dragged out of another house, then beat with wooden sticks as they took him to their vehicles, which were a bit outside the village."
While the government statement did not speculate on the deaths of the 12 men, family members and witnesses who retrieved the bodies from the morgue in Fada N'gouroma and participated in the burials, said they believed the men had been shot in the head. "It is obvious, clear, and evident that they all had head wounds," said a man whose brother was among the dead. "Some had crushed skulls."
Photographs and a video seen by Human Rights Watch showed the 12 bodies being taken to a cemetery in Fada N'Gourma in a vehicle, then laid on the ground in a line. The bodies were tightly wrapped in white plastic, taped around the victims' legs, chests, necks, and heads. Significant blood was visible through the plastic, including around the victims' heads.
Family members said they believed the men had been executed in the custody of the gendarmes based in Tanwalbougou. One said: "The prosecutor said they died overnight in the cell, and yet they'd bled profusely, like they'd been shot in the head. How can that be?"
Most said they were only able to recognize their loved ones by their clothing. "We identified my brother by his boubou [wide-sleeved robe]," one said.
"We saw our brothers, fathers, and sons leaving home that morning," said another. "By the look of their bodies, they suffered something terrible."
The dead were buried in Fada N'Gourma on May 13 after being released to family members.
Three family members said that the authorities in Fada N'Gourma told them that autopsies had not been performed, and they expressed concern that this would affect the investigation. "As we waited to retrieve the bodies, I heard the prosecutor and a district medical officer saying they had no forensic capacity and that given the state of decomposition, the bodies should be taken for burial," said the brother of a victim.
"The chief medical officer entered the morgue - spent just a few minutes - then said given the state of decomposition, the body bags could not be opened at all, not even for the families to identify their dead," the cousin of another victim said.
Relatives and members of nongovernmental groups questioned the ability of local gendarmes to conduct a credible and impartial investigation. "The gendarme post of Tanwalbougou is directly under the command of the regional capital, Fada N'Gourma, tasked with the investigation," said a family member. "Can we really expect a fair investigation?" In a May 14 news release, the Collectif Contre l'Impunite et la Stigmatisation des Communautes (Collective Against Impunity and the Stigmatization of Communities, CISC), a local human rights coalition, called for a special commission of inquiry, saying, "How can gendarmes investigate a case in which they are directly involved."
Community leaders and CISC said numerous Peuhl men from villages around Tanwalbougou had in recent months been executed or forcibly disappeared after their arrest by local gendarmes and noted that victims would be too frightened to respond to judicial summons by local gendarmes.
"Promptly opening an investigation into these killings is an important first step, but to move forward, the authorities should transfer the investigation to the capital, ensure witnesses are protected, and suspend the gendarme commander pending the investigation's outcome," Dufka said. "The authorities should send a strong message of intolerance for grave violations of rights by holding to account all security force members implicated by the investigation, including the gendarme commander."