Soldiers Torture Detainees in Léré

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Accelerate Deployment of Gendarmes in Conflict Zones

(Nairobi, March 26, 2013) – The government of Mali should investigate allegations that Malian soldiers tortured seven suspected supporters of Islamist armed groups in Léré, near Timbuktu, Human Rights Watch said today.

The seven men, all of whom showed visible signs of torture, described to Human Rights Watch being beaten and kicked, burned, injected with a caustic substance, and threatened with death while in army custody between February 15 and March 4, 2013. One said he was subjected to simulated drowning akin to “waterboarding.”

“The use of torture by the very soldiers mandated to restore security in northern Mali will only make a difficult situation worse,” said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Malian government should promptly and impartially investigate these and other allegations of abuse or face an increasingly unaccountable military and deepening communal tensions.”

All of the seven detainees were ethnic Tuareg men between the ages of 21 and 66 who said that soldiers had detained them in or near the animal market in Léré after they went there from nearby villages to sell their cows. Two were detained while hiding in a house near the animal market. All seven were taken to a house that appeared to be serving as an ad hoc military headquarters. The Malian army had retaken Léré in late January as part of a French-led offensive to recapture northern Mali from Islamist armed groups.

The torture and other ill-treatment of the men caused lasting injuries, Human Rights Watch said. One man went blind in one eye after being clubbed in the face with a gun butt, while another had gone partially deaf after being kicked repeatedly in the head. Two of the men described being beaten until unconscious, one of whom later vomited blood and bled from his nose. Another suffered a broken or dislocated shoulder after being hurled to the ground while bound, while another said he suffered at least one broken rib. Most were hogtied – their wrists and ankles tied tightly behind the back – for hours at a time, in some cases for over 12 hours. All had scars on their wrists from the tight cords and two had lost movement and feeling in one or both arms, suggesting possible nerve damage.

The military appeared to be torturing the men as punishment for suspected support for Islamist armed groups, Human Rights Watch said. While they were not formally interrogated while in military custody, the men said that on a few occasions there were informally questioned about alleged associations with armed groups, including while being mistreated. On March 5, the men were taken from Léré to Markala, 265 kilometers away, where they were photographed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, ammunition, motorcycles, and other alleged proof of their association with armed groups. The men denied any such association and said the arms and other items were not theirs.

All described being subjected to persistent death threats. The only language most of the men spoke was Tamashek, the Tuareg language, which the soldiers did not speak, thus the death threats were communicated through gestures. The soldiers would frequently run a finger across their neck and, on a few occasions, sharpen knives in front of the room in which the men were detained.

The detainees said that after they were transferred to the custody of the Malian gendarmerie on March 5, they were well-treated and had been receiving regular medical attention. They are undergoing further interrogation and have not had access to family members or legal counsel.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented numerous incidents in which Malian soldiers had detained without basis members of Tuareg, Arab, and Peuhl ethnic groups because of their alleged support of Islamist and Tuareg armed groups. Two of the Léré detainees told Human Rights Watch that they were aware of possible targeting by Malian soldiers, but believed they could safely go to the market because French soldiers were reportedly also in the town.

“It is in the interests of every government involved in Mali to ensure that all abuses cease and those responsible are appropriately punished,” Dufka said. “Doing nothing in the face of reports of torture should not be an option.”

A 31-year-old detainee told Human Rights Watch:

We had heard about the Malian soldiers doing bad to Tuaregs and know they suspect us, but what are we to do? We live in camps (campements) far from any towns and had no other choice but to sell our animals to survive. That day I felt confident both because I have proper identification papers and my brother in Timbuktu told me the French are always with the Malians…. That’s why I took the risk to come to Léré that day.

The abuses in Léré were documented during a Human Rights Watch research trip to Mali from March 11 to March 23. Other findings of human rights abuses will be made public in the coming weeks.

“Transferring the seven men tortured in Léré to the gendarmes appears to have eased their immediate plight, but not the concerns about the lawfulness of their detention,” Dufka said. “They should be released if there is no basis for holding them and compensated for their injuries.”

For detailed accounts of the torture and recommendations to the Malian government, please see below.

For more Human Rights Watch reporting on Mali, please visit:

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