Crimes committed by armed Islamist groups in the North
The capture of Gao and the outskirts of Timbuktu’s by the French, Malian and newly arrived African military forces of AFISMA have been a true liberation for the population faced with the cruelty and the proliferation of crimes : summary executions, rapes, sexual slavery, recruitment of child soldiers, mutilations, beating, stealing, destruction of protected cultural and religious goods etc. The information and the testimonies collected since the beginning of the joint attack by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and armed Islamist groups in January 2012 are proof of the gravity of the crime, including war crimes, committed against civilians and disarmed combatants.
In the city of Gao, which was retaken by Malian and French forces on 26 January 2013, the acts committed during the last months by the armed Islamist groups have borne the stamp of cruelty : eight persons the victims of hand or foot amputations, many sexual crimes, and a massive recruitment of child soldiers. A woman met by FIDH staff stated that “many women were taken to the bush and raped ”. “They even climbed our houses’ walls in order to rape us”, she added. Women were forced to be totally hidden and were not allowed to listen to the radio, to wear jewellery, body lotion , weaves or to date men. “You could not even greet a man without being beaten afterwards”.
When the fighting for the control of the area broke out in Gao at the end of June 2012 between MNLA soldiers and Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) Jihadists, civilians had witnessed such shocking crimes committed by the MNLA (see FIDH and AMDH report, 18 July 2012, "War crimes in North Mali") that “children and young persons had cut tongs, ears and had dragged corpses of MNLA soldiers who died in the clashes with the MUJAO”. Due to its military success against the MNLA, the MUJAO gained a reputation which allowed it to recruit soldiers amongst the population, especially among young persons and talibés. The latter are Islamic students, and some of them, according to a witness, “not even nine years old” were persuaded to join the Jihadists by their Master. “Some of them were so small that they could not even bear their weapons”, he adds. The recruitment of child soldiers was also carried out through the payment of money to the families or directly to the children. A witness – whose cousin enlisted in the MUJAO – saw soldiers promising families to pay 50,000 FCFA per month in return for the enlistment of their children. “Even Abdel Akim’s driver [one of MUJAO’s heads] was a child!” said another witness. According to many testimonies, some of the front-line soldiers who fought for the last MNLA’s stronghold in Menaka on 19 November 2012, were recruited in Gao and hastily trained at “Camp 1”, the MUJAO’s training camp in Gao. Nearly all those inexperienced fighters were killed during the first attack.
In Timbuktu, which was mostly controlled by AQMI and in particular by Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, similar acts have been reported : one amputation, lashing, sexual crimes, and recruitment of child soldiers amongst others. All these crimes constitute war crimes under Article 8 of the Rome Statute which establishes the International Criminal Court. The armed groups also destroyed a significant part of the UNESCO World Heritage mausoleums and stole more than 2,000 manuscripts and musical archives, invaluable and irreplaceable cultural artefacts. The introduction of Sharia law as in Gao and throughout the Northern part of Mali has involved the imposition of a certain style of dress, of Islamic police and courts, and even of a “Centre of recommendations for the correct and the interdiction of the indecent”, a type of civilian justice and religious police. The Islamists have also made the strict separation of boys and girls in school compulsory and have begun monitoring school courses in order to control the teaching given to children. Furthermore, propaganda radios have replaced local radio stations.
FIDH met a human rights defender who had to flee the north of the country at the end of 2012 due to excessive risk for his safety. He told us that “Jihadists are crazy. Due to them we have been cut off from the rest of the World”. He added that the reconquest of Northern cities allows civilians to “get out from the Night where we have been plunged for months by the armed Islamist groups”.
The exactions of the Malian military
FIDH observed a climate of warfare, mass fear and tension after the armed Jihadist groups took over Konna. This context has led the Malian military to commit revenge acts, reprisals and a series of summary executions since Tuesday 10 January 2013, in particular in Sevaré, Mopti, Niono and other towns close to fighting areas. According to concurrent testimonies and proofs, there were at least 15 persons executed at four different sites in Sevaré: in a military camp, near the bus station, close to the hospital and in another district of the city. In Mopti, one summary execution was also confirmed. In Sevaré and other outlying cities, reliable information points to cases of rape and other sexual abuses. In Sikolo, near Niono, the Malian military also executed two Malians of Tuareg origin. The FIDH continues receiving reports from all Western and Central areas of Mali, highlighting other allegations of extra-judicial executions.In adittion, the imam Cheik Hama Alourou, who was kidnapped by the Malian military on 21 January at night in Gnimi Gnama - village close to Bore and Douentza -, is still missing.
The persons against whom all those abuses have been committed are : accused of complicity with the jihadists or of being infiltrated elements, persons in possession of weapons, people who have no proof of their identity during military patrols or simply people targeted because of their belonging to certain ethnic groups, common called the “light skins”.
“The risk of revenge in the North is huge”
While the reconquest of the North is quickly moving forward, the FIDH is concerned with the many risks of slippage, reprisals and acts of vendetta against civilians committed by the military but also amongst the civilian population. In Gao, a Fulani Islamist soldier, whose corpse is now at the hospital’s morgue, was lynched by civilians. Three civilians are supposed to have been injured during their attack against the hospital where Jihadists were hidden away. In Gao, several houses belonging to Tuaregs and Arabs were apparently looted and doors and windows smashed. The mob justice seems to be primarily targeting the Tuaregs. . However, Tuaregs are not the only victims of the popular anger due to their real or assumed allegiance towards the armed groups. Thus, in Gao, the civilians of Kadji’s village (Gourma – on the right bank of the river) are not Tuaregs but they risk being targeted in these reprisals. Indeed inhabitants of Gao reproach their complicity with the armed groups, in particular because of a previous litigation with the rest of inhabitants. In fact, a young woman reported to our organisation that the rest of Gao’s inhabitants has been saying : “we will kill all the light skins [foreign Islamists] and all persons coming from the Gourma”. In Diabali, rampages are reported on Arabs and Tuaregs’ houses and goods committed by people living in this area.
This desire for revenge especially underlies the crimes and exactions committed since the offensive of the MNLA and other armed Islamist groups in January 2012, in particular the slaughtering of Malian soldiers in Aguelhoc and Tessalit (see "Les violations des droits de l’homme se multiplient au Nord", in French) and the many rapes and human rights violations perpetrated by MNLA’s fighters of Tuareg origin when they captured Gao and Timbuktu (see the FIDH and AMDH report, 18 July 2012, "War crimes in North mali"). Those recent crimes are reviving old cases of retaliation committed during previous clashes with Tuareg rebel armed movements, in particular in the 90’s. Indeed, during those armed rebellions, Tuareg rebels killed Northern officials while the military was leading deadly and indiscriminate counter-offensives against civilians of Tuareg origin. According to a human rights defender from northern Mali, all these facts lead to a situation where the risk of revenge and reprisals is extremely high.
The imperative need for justice in order to break the cycle of impunity and violence
All Malian or foreign perpetrators, and all those responsible persons for those crimes must be arrested and prosecuted. “Aliou Commissaire” - one of the heads of MUJAO –was reportedly arrested by the French and Malian military forces on 25 January 2013 in Hombori. Additionally, MUJAO members supposedly surrendered to the Nigerien military forces before being disarmed. All those perpetrators of war crimes and serious human rights violations, including members and heads of the MNLA, shall be equitably prosecuted and sentenced, if appropriate. The exemplary force of those trials shall help strengthen the rule of law in Mali. In the same way, military personnel who committed crimes against civilians shall, according to FIDH, be impartially prosecuted in order to remind authorities of the obligation to abide by international humanitarian law and human rights, including in times of war.
Souhayr Belhassen, FIDH President, said : “We cannot fight the perpetrators of the crimes in Aguelhoc using the same methods they did. The reconquest of the North by the French and Malian military troops shall not be tarnished by the same practice and by committing the same crimes which served the Islamists.” “The cycle of impunity and violence must be broken”, she added.
According to Sidiki Kaba, FIDH Honorary President, “We must not simply win the war, we have to win the peace now ; and this one can only be brought with the respect of human rights, the refusal of any vengeance or punishment acts, the prosecution of all the perpetrators of human rights violations, the withdrawal of military from the political life ; and, in the post-war, the establishment of free, fair and transparent elections”.