In a report just released rights group Amnesty International has called on the French army to investigate the deaths of five civilians it alleges were killed in a air raid at the start of the Mali campaign.
DW: What evidence do you have to back up your allegations?
Salvatore Sagues: We spent ten days on the ground and we went to each of the places mentioned in the report and spoke with a lot of witnesses. Concerning the air strike, we went to Konna, the place where the air strike took place. We spoke to survivors and many witnesses, and all of them told us two things. First of all that the attack took place on January 11, around 11 o'clock, and that they heard two helicopters. When we heard about this information, we contacted the French ministry of defense and asked them what was their position and they said very vehemently "No we didn't intervene in Konna in the morning, we only intervened in the afternoon." We also contacted a senior official in the Malian army and a senior official in the Malian government and both told us that there was a joint operation in the morning. So now we are asking both the French and the Malian army to open an investigation, not an internal investigation but an independent investigation, that looks into two things. Who were the people who were in charge and responsible for these attacks and what were the rules of engagement, taking into account that the air strike targeted civilians?
Are you optimistic that the Malian authorities and the French will open that independent and impartial investigation?
We are not accusing either the French or the Malian army, we are just asking for the truth. We know that there was this attack on the 11th. All the information we got indicates that this attack took place around eleven o'clock, so there is only one question left. Who was responsible for this attack? I think that with pressure we should be able to find an answer to this question.
How widespread is the recruitment by Islamists of child soldiers which you mention in your report?
It is really widespread. Many testimonies collected by Amnesty show that many children aged from 10 to 17 have been recruited by Islamists. Before the war they were recruited to stop cars and to check passengers in the north of the country controlled by the Islamists. We were able to interview two child soldiers and one of them told us how he was recruited. He was sold by the relative of an Islamic teacher to the armed groups. The armed groups gave him food with curious substances to eat and drink and these substances were meant to increase his energy in order for these child soldiers to be pushed on to the front line in order to kill enemies.
What kind of stories have former detainees been telling you ?
We met witnesses who told us, for example, in Sevare on January 10 and 11, that several people were arrested because they were wearing clothes that could be associated with Islamists. Some of them were arrested in the street, others were arrested in the bus station. Some of them were brought to a nearby cemetery and killed. The corpses of some of them were thrown into a well. Others were just shot down in the street. So this is very, very worrying taking into account that over the past year, the Malian army has committed a number of executions and there is a pattern of the Malian army killing people they want to get rid of.
How would you describe the human rights situation overall now that the Islamists have been pushed back?
I think the situation is still very fragile. Now that the French and the Malian army have reconquered the north of the country and notably three main cities, Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal, there is a real need to reassure the population. People with light skin, Arabs or Tuaregs, are very afraid of reprisals by the population, with the government just looking the other way and not intervening. So the main issue now is for the Malian authorities to reassure the population and to protect them against any reprisals.
How easy will it be for the country to return to normal life?
Firstly the authorities will need to ensure everyone's security. Secondly, they must ensure that the army is not committing abuses and violations. This means that the people who were responsible for these killings should be charged and tried. To restore the rule of law, first of all the population has to have confidence in the security forces and this is not the case at the moment. If the population doesn't trust the security forces, I'm afraid that the future of Mali wil remain bleak for quite a long time.
Salvatore Sagues Is one of the authors of Amnesty International's report on rightS abuses in Mali which was published on February 1.
Interview: Isaac Mugabi