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Rights Reforms Crucial for Civilian Rule : Mali – 2022

Ensure Free Speech, Fair Trials During 2-Year Transition

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Rights Reforms Crucial for Civilian Rule

Malian authorities should act to uphold fundamental freedoms and the rule of law within the new two-year timeline for transition to civilian rule, Human Rights Watch said today. They should promote respect for freedom of expression and media, ensure due process rights for criminal suspects, and end torture and enforced disappearances.

On July 3, 2022, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) lifted economic and financial sanctions in January after Mali’s transitional government agreed to a new timetable for elections and other reforms by March 2024. Monitoring compliance with the timeline should include improving benchmarks for respecting and protecting human rights, Human Rights Watch said.

“Mali’s leaders have taken steps to achieve civilian rule, but achieving a democratic society means ensuring respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms,” said Jehanna Henry, senior Africa adviser at Human Rights Watch. “Authorities should promote open dialogue and allow journalists, commentators and human rights activists to speak up without fear of reprisals.”

Human Rights Watch researchers visited Mali’s capital, Bamako, from June 29 to July 8, where they met with three current and former detainees, family members of detainees, three lawyers and 25 media professionals, civil society Activists, party members and analysts. Authorities responded to Human Rights Watch’s request for comment with a letter on August 6, reiterating their commitment to protecting human rights enshrined in international and Malian law, but failing to address the specific findings of human rights violations described below.

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

During this period, violence in Mali has surged. Attacks by armed Islamist groups and government-led counterterrorism operations have killed hundreds of civilians since early 2022. This coincided with the withdrawal of French and other Western troops supporting the government’s military operations, and the reported arrival of Russian troops from the Wagner Group, a military security contractor with apparent ties to the Russian government.

The transitional government is increasingly restricting United Nations peacekeeping operations, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali. It barred peacekeepers from areas where government forces were involved in abusive operations, such as the town of Mora, where Human Rights Watch documented severe abuses by Malian troops and foreign soldiers identified as Russian fighters in March. In June, Malian authorities rejected a UN Security Council call to allow the mission access to all areas.

During the two-year transition period, the authorities should address the following human rights violations and ongoing violations of the laws of war:

Detention, harassment perceived critics

Malian authorities have detained perceived opponents and critics of the government, some of whom have been held for months without politically motivated charges. In January, security forces arrested Dr. Étienne Fakaba Sissoko, an economics professor, on suspicion of “subversive” remarks. Sissoko said prosecutors charged him with “racial discrimination,” apparently based on his comments that government appointments were based on race, as well as falsifying a college degree. Observers say the allegations are an excuse to keep him silent. Sissoko was conditionally released in June without any convictions, but remains banned from travel.

Officials with the opposition party Solidarity for Democracy and Independence (SADI) said their leader, Dr Oumar Mariko, was arrested on December 6, 2021, for criticizing interim Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maïga and detained for almost a month. He has been in hiding since authorities tried to arrest him in April, allegedly as he denounced Mora’s military abuses. Opposition officials from the Coalition for the Development of Mali (CODEM) have confirmed that their leader, Housseini Amion Guiindo, has nearly been arrested for urging the transitional government to adhere to an 18-month transition timetable.

In October 2021, authorities arrested Issa Kaou N’djim, a prominent politician and deputy chairman of the Provisional Parliament, after he criticized the expulsion of ECOWAS representatives. He was released two weeks later and then convicted of insulting the country via social media. Njim, though a supporter of interim President Goita, has publicly criticized the prime minister.

Authorities also detained former Economy and Finance Minister Fili Buare Sissoko and former Presidential Chief of Staff Mahamadou Kamara in August 2021 and September 2021, respectively. They are charged in a high-level corruption case along with former Prime Minister Sumerou Boubeye Maiega, who died in prison in March. A trial has yet to take place, and a judge has denied their request for conditional release.

International human rights law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention. The convention favors the release of accused persons pending trial. Under Malian law, the accused can ask for a conditional release, but lawyers say they are usually not granted even if the legal requirements are met. Also, even if a court decides to grant a conditional release or acquittal, prosecutors can appeal the decision, automatically suspending the court order.

Restrictions on Media and Free Expression

In January, Malian authorities announced that they would reintroduce the media certification process. In February, they expelled Benjamin Roger, a longtime journalist who worked at Jeune Afrique, for not being certified and stopped offering new ones. In March, Radio France International and France 24 suspended operations in the country after both media reported abuses by security forces in Mora. In April, authorities announced that the suspensions would be final. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights denounced the media restrictions as “the latest in a series of actions to restrict freedom of the press and expression in Mali, and comes at a time when more scrutiny is needed, not less.”

Authorities also detained people for speaking out online. In May, four women; Sara Yara, Ramata Diabate, Dede Cisse and Amy Cisse; families and lawyers of the women said they were detained for their alleged involvement in a Facebook blog post critical of the director of the National Security Agency. The women remain in custody pending an appeal by prosecutors, despite a judge ruling on conditional release in June. They face multiple charges under the Criminal Code and a 2019 law against cybercrime, which provides for prison terms and fines. Authorities detained online commentator Alhassane Tangara in July after a pro-government group condemned him on Facebook.

Media professionals and activists say online commentators known as “video people” have increased harassment of government critics. Journalist and blogger Malick Konate says he has been subjected to dozens of online threats and harassment for his Radio France International coverage and political comments on TV and social media, accusing him of being pro-France and opposing the transition . On June 4, the unidentified attacker threw bricks and smashed his car window.

“Everyone is afraid to speak, for better or for worse,” said one of the activists. “The majority chose silence.” Another said: “I kept quiet because I didn’t want to go to jail.” Media people say it has become more difficult to invite visible guests to a public debate. Some groups claim to have stopped making public statements altogether. “I live in fear,” said the head of a democratic association. “They can come arrest me at any time.”

“The suppression of the media and the detention of tourists have had a chilling effect on Mali’s political life and civic space,” Henry said. “The Malian 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 on torture and other ill-treatment by Malian security forces, often in unauthorized detention facilities, and enforced disappearances.

Although a court acquitted two of them in June, six men arrested in September and October 2021 remain in custody, including jurist and senior officer adviser Dr. Kalilu Dumbia, They are accused of planning a coup. Authorities allegedly subjected the men to electric shocks, “waterboarding” or simulated drowning, repeated beatings and sleep deprivation in order to extract confessions and provide other information.

 

On May 16, security officials detained seven military personnel, including a member of the transitional parliament, on charges of planning a coup “backed by Western countries,” according to media reports. Authorities have not provided any information on the men’s condition or whereabouts. Mali’s National Human Rights Commission, the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), has received no response to requests for access to detainees and concerns about enforced disappearances.

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

Human Rights Watch said ECOWAS’s transition monitoring mechanism should include benchmarks for progress on key human rights issues, including arbitrary detention and harassment of opposition figures, freedom of speech and media, torture and enforced disappearances.

“Mali’s leaders must abide by their obligations under international human rights law to investigate allegations of torture and forced disappearances, and to appropriately prosecute those responsible,” Henry said. “Maintaining human rights and the rule of law is an integral part of the successful transition to civil rule.”

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