Mali: Rights Reforms Crucial for Civilian Rule

Ensure Free Speech, Fair Trials During 2-Year Transition

(Nairobi) Mali’s authorities should act to uphold fundamental freedoms and the rule of law during the new two-year timetable for transitioning to civilian rule, Human Rights Watch said today. They should promote respect for freedom of expression and the media, ensure due process rights for criminal suspects, and end torture and enforced disappearances.

On July 3, 2022, the regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) lifted economic and financial sanctions, imposed in January, after Mali’s transitional government agreed to a new timeline for elections and other reforms by March 2024. The ECOWAS mechanism set up to monitor adherence to the timetable should include benchmarks on improved respect and protection of human rights, Human Rights Watch said.

“Mali’s leaders have taken steps toward civilian rule, but achieving a democratic society means ensuring respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms,” said Jehanne Henry, senior Africa adviser at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should foster open dialogue that allows journalists, commentators, and human rights activists to speak out without fear of reprisals.”

Human Rights Watch researchers visited Bamako, Mali’s capital, between June 29 and July 8, and met with 3 current and former detainees, detainees’ family members, 3 lawyers, and 25 media professionals, civil society activists, political party members, and analysts. Authorities responded to Human Rights Watch’s request for comments by letter on August 6, reaffirming their commitment to protecting human rights as enshrined in international and Malian law, but failed to address specific findings of violations described below.

Mali’s transitional government took over following a military-led coup in August 2020 against then-President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. In May 2021, military leaders consolidated power through a second coup, installing Col. Assimi Goïta as interim president. Since then, the media, civil society groups, lawyers, and analysts have reported increasing repression by the transitional government.

Violence has surged across Mali during this period. Attacks by armed Islamist groups and government-led counterterrorism operations have resulted in the killing of several hundred civilians since the beginning of 2022. This coincides with the departure of French and other Western forces supporting the government’s military efforts, and the reported arrival of Russian forces from the Wagner Group – a military security contractor with apparent links to Russia’s government.

The transitional government has increasingly restricted the United Nations peacekeeping mission, the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali. It has barred the peacekeepers from areas where government forces were implicated in abusive operations, such as the town of Moura, where Human Rights Watch documented serious abuses in March by the Malian army and foreign soldiers identified as Russian fighters. In June, Malian authorities rejected the UN Security Council’s call to allow the mission access to all areas.

During the two-year transition, the authorities should address the following human rights violations, as well as persistent laws-of-war violations:

Detention, Harassment of Perceived Critics

Malian authorities have detained perceived opponents and critics of the government, holding some for months without trial on politically motivated charges. In January, security forces arrested Dr. Étienne Fakaba Sissoko, a professor of economics for alleged “subversive” speech. Sissoko said that prosecutors accused him of “ethnic discrimination,” apparently based on his comments that government appointments were based on ethnicity, and of falsifying university diplomas. Observers said these charges were pretexts to silence him. Sissoko was conditionally released in June without being convicted of any crime but remains banned from travel.

Officials from the opposition party Solidarité africaine pour la démocratie et l'indépendance (SADI) said that their leader, Dr. Oumar Mariko, was arrested on December 6, 2021 for criticizing interim Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maïga and detained for nearly a month. He has been in hiding since April, when authorities tried to arrest him, allegedly for denouncing army abuses in Moura. A Convergence pour le Developpement du Mali (CODEM) opposition party official confirmed that their leader, Housseini Amion Guindo, narrowly escaped arrest for urging the transitional government to respect an 18-month transition timetable.

In October 2021, the authorities arrested Issa Kaou N’djim, a well-known politician and vice president in the interim parliament, after he criticized the expulsion of an ECOWAS representative. He was released after two weeks, then convicted of insulting the state via social media. N’djim, though a supporter of interim President Goïta, has publicly criticized the prime minister.

The authorities also detained Fily Bouare Sissoko, a former economy and finance minister, and Mahamadou Camara, a former presidential chief of staff, since August and September 2021, respectively. They were charged, along with former prime minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga, who died in custody in March, in a high-level corruption case. The trials have not gone forward and a judge has denied their requests for conditional release.

International human rights law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention. The covenant favors releasing accused people pending trial. Under Malian law an accused person may request conditional release, but lawyers said that conditional release is often not granted even when legal requirements are met. Moreover, even when a court decides to grant conditional release or acquits an accused person, the prosecutor may appeal this decision, automatically suspending the court’s orders.

Restrictions on Media and Free Expression

In January, Malian authorities announced they would reintroduce media accreditation procedures. In February, they expelled a longtime reporter with Jeune Afrique, Benjamin Roger, for not having accreditation, and stopped providing new accreditations. In March, they suspended both Radio France International and France 24 from operating in the country after both outlets reported on security force abuses in Moura. In April, the authorities announced that those suspensions would be final. The UN high commissioner for human rights denounced the media restrictions as “the latest in a string of actions curtailing press freedom and the freedom of expression in Mali, and come at a time when more, not less, scrutiny is needed.”

The authorities have also detained people for their online expression. In May, four women; Sara Yara, Ramata Diabate, Dede Cisse, and Amy Cisse; were detained for their alleged involvement with a Facebook blog post that criticized the head of the state security agency, family members and lawyers for the women said. The women remained in custody despite a judge’s ruling for conditional release in June, pending the prosecutor’s appeal. They face several charges under the penal code and the 2019 law against cybercrimes, which provides penalties of imprisonment and fines. In July, the authorities detained an online commentator, Alhassane Tangara, after a pro-government group denounced him on Facebook.

Media professionals and activists said that online commentators, known as “video men,” have increased their harassment of critics of the government. The journalist and blogger Malick Konate said he had received dozens of online threats and harassment for his reporting for Radio France International and his political commentary on television and social media, accusing him of being pro-French and against the transition. On June 4, unidentified assailants threw bricks that broke his car’s windows.

“Everyone is afraid of talking, whether good or bad,” said one activist. “Most have chosen silence.” Another said: “I am silent because I do not want to go to prison.” Media professionals said it has become more difficult to invite outspoken guests to public debates. Some organizations said they have stopped issuing public statements altogether. “I live with fear in the stomach,” the director of a democracy association said. “Any day they can come arrest me.”

“The crackdown on the media and detentions of critics have had a chilling effect on Mali’s political life and civic space,” Henry said. “Mali’s authorities need to reverse this trend to ensure the credibility of the political transition.”

Torture and Enforced Disappearance

Human Rights Watch and others have previously reported torture and other ill-treatment by Mali’s security forces, often in unauthorized detention facilities, and enforced disappearances.

Six men arrested in September and October 2021, including a jurist and adviser to top officials, Dr. Kalilou Doumbia, remain in detention, accused of plotting a coup, despite a court decision in June to acquit two of them. The authorities allegedly subjected the men to electric shock, “waterboarding” or simulated drowning, repeated beatings, and sleep deprivation to extract confessions and other information.

On May 16, security officials detained seven military personnel, including a member of the transitional parliament, on charges of plotting a coup “supported by a Western state,” media reported. The authorities have not provided any information about the men’s condition and whereabouts. Mali’s national human rights commission, Commission Nationale des Droit de l’Homme (CNDH), requested access to the detainees and raised concerns of enforced disappearance, but has received no answer.

International law defines enforced disappearance as the detention of a person by state officials or their agents and a refusal to acknowledge the detention or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts.

The ECOWAS monitoring mechanism for the transitional period should include benchmarks for progress on key human rights concerns, including arbitrary detention and harassment of opposition figures, freedom of expression and the media, and torture and enforced disappearances, Human Rights Watch said.

“Mali’s leaders should comply with their obligations under international human rights law by investigating allegations of torture and enforced disappearances, and appropriately prosecuting those responsible,” Henry said. “Upholding human rights and the rule of law are integral to a successful transition to civilian rule.”