Since 2016, armed Islamist groups have dramatically increased their presence in Burkina Faso, creating an environment of fear throughout the country. They have attacked government buildings and schools, intimidated teachers, conducted brutal assaults on cafés and other gathering places, and executed those suspected of collaborating with authorities. In response, Burkinabè security forces have conducted counterterrorism operations in 2017 and 2018 that resulted in numerous allegations of extrajudicial killings, abuse of suspects in custody, and arbitrary arrests.
The violence has largely taken place in the northern Sahel administrative region as well as in the capital, Ouagadougou, forcing over 12,000 northern residents to flee, according to United Nations figures. These residents include local government representatives, civil servants, teachers and nurses.
A patchwork of armed Islamist groups with shifting and overlapping allegiances are involved in and have claimed responsibility for many of the attacks, including Ansaroul Islam, founded in late 2016 by Burkinabè Islamic preacher Malam Ibrahim Dicko; Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its affiliates, notably the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM); and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). The growing presence of these groups in Burkina Faso is linked to insecurity in neighboring Mali, where northern regions fell to separatist Tuareg and Al-Qaeda-linked armed groups in 2012.
In the north, armed Islamist groups have attacked dozens of army, gendarme and army posts. In 2016 and 2017, Ouagadougou suffered two brutal attacks on popular restaurants which resulted in the death of 47 civilians and one member of the security forces. On March 2, 2018, fighters attacked the French Embassy and the national army headquarters in Ouagadougou, resulting in the death of eight security force personnel.
Based on interviews during two research missions in February and March 2018, this report documents abuses in the Sahel administrative region and Ouagadougou by armed Islamist groups, including execution-style killings, and alleged abuses by security forces between 2016 and 2018. Human Rights Watch interviewed 67 victims and witnesses of abuse; officials from the ministries of justice, defense, and education; teachers; health workers; local government officials; diplomats and staff of humanitarian organizations; security sector analysts; and youth, religious and community leaders.
Human Rights Watch documented the alleged execution-style killings of 19 men by armed Islamist groups. The killings took place in or near 12 different villages in northern Burkina Faso and largely targeted those accused of providing information to the security forces, including village chiefs and local officials. Many of the men were executed in their homes, a few had their throats cuts and one was decapitated, according to witnesses who spoke to Human Rights Watch.
Villagers from the Sahel region described being extremely frightened by the presence of armed Islamist fighters who regularly threatened them with reprisals if they provided information on their whereabouts to the state security services. Several residents of different ethnic groups described having been abducted, questioned, and, in some cases, beaten or robbed by the armed men.
Education sector workers described a series of threats, intimidations and attacks against schools and teachers by armed Islamists, primarily in the Sahel region, including the abduction of a teacher and killing of a school director. This has led to the closure of at least 219 primary and secondary schools, leaving some 20,000 students out of school.
Security forces— soldiers and gendarmes, including personnel from two special units created to combat terrorism, and to a lesser extent, members of the police—conducting counterterrorism operations since 2016 have also been implicated in numerous human rights violations.
Human Rights Watch documented the alleged summary execution by state security forces of 14 people. Seven men were allegedly executed on a single day in late December 2017.
About a dozen witnesses described seeing bodies along roads and on footpaths near the towns of Djibo, Nassoumbou, and Bourem among others. Almost all of the victims were last seen in the custody of government security forces.
Community leaders complained of numerous instances in which the security forces appeared to randomly detain men en masse who happened to be in the vicinity of incursions, attacks or ambushes by armed Islamist groups. Gendarmes released the majority of detainees after preliminary investigations which often lasted several days, but others have been detained for months.
Human Rights Watch documented six such mass arrests during which numerous men were severely mistreated and four men died, allegedly as a result of severe beatings. Witnesses said the abuse usually stopped when military forces and the police handed the detainees over to government gendarmes. Health workers described treating men for cuts, bruises, hematomas and gashes sustained in detention.
The vast majority of the victims of abuses by both the armed Islamists and the security forces were ethnic Peuhl, whose members largely reside in the north. “The army acts like all Peuhls are jihadists, yet it is the very Peuhl who are victimized by the Jihadists – we have been killed, decapitated, kidnapped and threatened,” said a local mayor.
Those interviewed consistently described being caught between Islamists’ threats to execute those who collaborated with the state, and the security forces, who expected them to provide intelligence about the presence of armed groups and meted out collective punishment, including mistreatment and arbitrary detention, when they didn’t.
Victims of violence by both the armed Islamists and security forces complained about the slow pace, or complete lack, of investigations into human rights cases since 2016. Community leaders from the north complained about what they perceived to be a partial response to abuses by the authorities. They said killings and abuses by armed Islamists almost always triggered an investigation and, often arrests, while alleged abuses by security force personnel were rarely, if ever, investigated by the security forces or the judiciary.
Justice officials said that investigations by the Ouagadougou-based Specialized Judicial Unit Against Crime and Terrorism, established in 2017 to try all terrorism-related cases, were slow as a result of the lack of personnel and the complexity of the cases, which often involve different international jurisdictions, notably from other countries in the Sahel region.
The government of Burkina Faso should urgently open investigations into the incidents of alleged human rights violations documented in this report, take measures to prevent further abuses, and ensure that those involved in all counterterrorism operations abide by international human rights law. The Burkinabè Human Rights Commission should also conduct a credible independent investigation into human rights violations.
Burkina Faso’s international partners, notably the European Union, France and the United States, should privately and publicly call upon the government to conduct prompt, credible investigations into allegations of killings and other abuses by the Burkina Faso security forces.
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