“This bill will be the last one. The first and the last one.” That is how Emmanuel Macron answered the question I had just asked him: “What would happen, Mr. President, if France were hit by another terrorist attack in the coming months? Would you propose yet another bill?”

French police and anti-crime brigade (BAC) members secure a street as they carried out a counter-terrorism swoop at different locations in Argenteuil, a suburb north of Paris, France, July 21, 2016. 

© 2016 Reuters/Charles Platiau

The exchange took place last Friday, in the late afternoon. I was in the Elysée as part of a delegation of leading human rights organizations, lawyers and magistrates to meet President Macron and two of his advisors. We had come to express our concerns and criticisms of two bills drafted by the government and submitted to Parliament: a sixth extension of the state of emergency until November, and a counterterrorism bill directly inspired by the provisions of the state of emergency. This bill would make permanent special powers which were supposed to be temporary, introduced as necessary only for the extraordinary circumstances of a time-limited state of emergency.

For over an hour and a half, we set out methodically the abuses committed against ordinary citizens when those powers were used under the state of emergency. We warned the President that the counterterrorism bill would entrench what were exceptional powers into regular law and pose grave dangers for fundamental rights and the rule of law. We denounced the lack of evaluation of the effectiveness of state of emergency measures and of the existing legal arsenal for counterterrorism. We lamented the choice of an accelerated procedure for the parliamentary review of these two proposed bills, depriving the country of what ought to be a meaningful democratic debate about the concept of liberty, one of France’s founding values.

But despite this discussion, President Macron did not waver.

Far from reinforcing freedoms, as the President claimed this past Monday in his speech to Parliament, the new bill would entrench in regular law abusive powers introduced under the state of emergency. It would normalize the considerable powers awarded by the state of emergency to the Ministry of the Interior and the administrative police. The drastic weakening of judicial safeguards, which are the foundation of the rule of law and an essential defense against abuse, would become permanent. In effect it treats France as if it is always in a state of emergency. By authorizing “assigned residence orders”, whereby individuals’ freedom of movement is severely limited even though they have not been accused of a crime, this new bill also confirms a dangerous shift towards so-called preventive justice. Just this week we’ve learned that since the state of emergency was declared in November 2015, there have been 708 assigned residence orders. More than one a day. This is a trend, not a small set of isolated actions. The “logic of suspicion”, on which these orders are predicated, opens the door to significant abuse.

During the meeting, the President admitted that the state of emergency can foster “arbitrary behaviors” and has led to « excesses ». Emmanuel Macron, then a candidate, had himself expressed in his book, Revolution “that reducing the freedoms of all, and the dignity of each citizen, has never anywhere led to an increase in security.” Despite that, Emmanuel Macron chose to follow in the footsteps of governments that, over the last two decades, have responded to the threat of terrorism with ever harsher laws, turning France into the country with the most expansive counterterrorism laws in Europe. Members of Parliament, a large majority of whom are supportive of the President, will most likely adopt the bill without much opposition. Macron may well say this is his “first and last law” on security; but recent history in France and elsewhere teaches us that once states start down this legislative slope, more repressive laws follow.

If we refer to the past 18 months, France may well be addicted to emergency powers. As a responsible leader, however, the French President’s job is to break that dependency and resist the temptation to react to the fear of another attack with laws that do more harm to rights than they do good to security. As activists, lawyers, and voices of civil society, that is what we will keep telling the President and our elected representatives. End the state of emergency, don’t simply inject a dose of it into ordinary law. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

French soldiers from Operation Barkhane stand outside their armored personnel carrier during a sandstorm in Inat, Mali, May 26, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters
“The jihadists are the law now,” an elder from central Mali told me. “The very day the French-supported operation finished, the Islamists were back in the villages,” confided another villager last week, referring to a military operation near the Mali-Burkina Faso border in April.

The endurance of the jihadist recruitment success and their appeal to many villagers suggests that military operations on their own will not be sufficient to defeat the threat. President Emmanuel Macron should keep this in mind when he visits the country this Friday.

Hailed as a military success, the 2013 French-led military intervention in northern Mali ended the region’s occupation by ethnic Tuareg separatists and armed Islamists linked to Al-Qaeda. But since 2015, attacks against Malian forces and abuses by Al-Qaeda-linked groups have moved southward to Mali’s previously stable central regions and, last year, spread into neighboring Burkina Faso.

Since 2015, I’ve interviewed scores of witnesses and victims to abuses in central Mali. They described how, in recent months, groups of up to 50 Islamist fighters closed down schools, banned women from riding on motorcycles driven by men other than their husbands, and imposed their version of Sharia (Islamic law). “We used to spend days celebrating a marriage or baptism, dancing and singing together,” one man said. “Not anymore.”

Men accused of being informants for the Malian government often turn up dead. Since 2015, Islamists have executed at least 40 men in their custody, including village chiefs and local officials. Some were murdered in front of their families. Several people said they felt pressured to send one of their sons to join the Islamists.

However, an equal number of villagers told me they welcomed the presence of the Islamist groups in central Mali; they saw them as a benevolent alternative to a state they associate with predatory and abusive governance. Many seethed as they described Malian army abuses during counterterrorism operations, including arbitrary arrests, torture, and executions.

Since late 2016, I have documented the alleged extrajudicial killing by soldiers of 12 detainees, the most recent in early May, and the forced disappearance of several others. Villagers described how soldiers detained and executed three family members in January. “We heard gunshots in the distance,” one witness said. “I followed the tracks of the army truck and found our people in a shallow grave.” This week, I received a desperate email from the brother of a man forced into a white pickup by men in uniform on February 3. “We have heard nothing; we have searched everywhere,” he said.

While the behavior of the state security services has improved in recent years, Malian authorities have made no meaningful  effort to investigate those implicated in violations.

The jihadists speak a lot about corruption… how the authorities steal, torture and do bad things to us. Honestly, they don’t need to try very hard to recruit the youth.

Villagers said the Islamists are recruiting by exploiting frustrations over poverty, abusive security services, rampant banditry, local Peuhl clan rivalries, and, especially, corruption.

“The jihadists speak a lot about corruption… how the authorities steal, torture and do bad things to us,” one elder said. “Honestly, they don’t need to try very hard to recruit the youth…”

Villagers also said the Islamists are increasingly filling the governance vacuum. They welcomed Islamist efforts to investigate and punish livestock thieves, including by executions. Others praised Sharia rulings in favor of victims of domestic violence or spousal abandonment. Elders from both the sedentary Bambara and pastoral Peuhl communities credited the Islamists’ efforts in late 2016 to resolve deadly land disputes. This meaningfully reduced communal violence in some regions, they said.

“We are fed up with paying bribes every time you meet a man in uniform or government official,” one villager said. “The Islamists get all this done without asking for taxes, money, or one of our cows.”

It was corruption, poor governance, and abusive security force conduct that significantly contributed  to Mali’s spectacular collapse in 2012. The burden to resolve this situation lies first and foremost with the Malian government. But the French strategy in Mali and the wider Sahel won’t succeed without helping Mali to address the issues underlying decades of insecurity and the growing support for abusive armed Islamist groups. Military operations, including those supported by the French, are not enough to pull Mali from this deepening quagmire.

When President Macron visits Mali on Friday, he should urge the government to professionalize the security forces and hold them accountable, to support the chronically neglected judiciary, and to take concrete action against rampant corruption. Strengthening Mali’s weak rule of law institutions is complicated work, but no counterterrorism strategy can succeed without it.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Like an addict, France does not know how to quit its state of emergency even though it has become clear that maintaining it erodes the rule of law and fosters human rights abuses while not keeping the country safer. The February 22 report by the parliamentary commission tasked with monitoring the state of emergency provided yet another reminder that it no longer serves any meaningful purpose.

French police and anti-crime brigade (BAC) secure a street they carried out a counter-terrorism swoop at different locations in Argenteuil, a suburb north of Paris, France, July 21, 2016.

REUTERS/Charles Platiau

The commission president, Dominique Raimbourg, from the governing Socialist Party, noted that activity under the state of emergency has been “greatly reduced” since the last extension. His fellow commission member, Jean-Frédéric Poisson, from the main opposition party Les Republicains, noted that “time that passes erodes the efficiency and nature of the state of emergency.” A French commission of inquiry into the Paris attacks had already concluded back in July 2016 that  the state of emergency had “limited impact” on improving security and any effect it may have had “quickly dissipated.”

Human Rights Watch’s own research has found repeated abuses against ordinary people during policing operations under emergency powers.

So why is France maintaining the state of emergency despite repeated warnings by its own oversight mechanisms?

It is mainly due to confusion by politicians about the purpose of a state of emergency. Many have said that it is justified by an ongoing terrorist risk. This was clearly displayed in December 2016 when Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux justified his request for a fifth extension by saying that “the terrorist threat was at its highest.” Under this reasoning, a state of emergency is needed as long as there is a high security risk.

This reasoning is dangerous on many levels. By suggesting that regular laws, procedures, and oversight mechanisms are not sufficient to counter threats, it weakens the premise of the rule of law and relegates it to a luxury for “normal” times. But it also sets the stage for the trap in which France finds itself. French leaders have implied that they will only lift the state of emergency when the security risk has subsided but since they can’t predict the risk of future terrorist attacks, they prefer to maintain it rather than pay a political price if a subsequent attack takes place.

So lifting the state of emergency becomes less dependent on security considerations and more on political calculations. This would explain why France’s latest extension was driven by the electoral calendar, punting the issue to the next president and legislature. Call it political procrastination, or perhaps more aptly, political cowardice.

This disconnect between its initial purpose and current raison d’être was captured nicely by Sébastien Pietrasanta, a parliamentarian and rapporteur for the commission investigating the state’s response to the November 2015 attacks, who recently noted that “the effect of the state of emergency is fading and yet we extend it…even though the link with terrorism is quite tenuous.”

I have seen this logic at play in the Middle East. Egypt and Syria, countries I have worked on for years, maintained their states of emergency for 31 and 48 years respectively. Every time the state of emergency was up for renewal, the country’s rulers argued that the risk was still there or that the timing was not right to lift it. France is not a tin-pot autocracy and its rulers are not despots, but there is a cautionary tale in these experiences.

It is time to reframe the debate in France. A continuing state of emergency should not be dependent on the existence of risk – an exogenous measure that cannot be controlled by political calculations. It should be restricted to situations where there is an exceptional need for exceptional measures at an exceptional moment. It may have been justified for a few days immediately after the November 2015 attacks as the country’s security forces were caught unprepared. But it should have been lifted as soon as the institutions resumed their normal functioning – regardless of whether the underlying security threat has been addressed.

It is time to reframe the debate in France. A continuing state of emergency should not be dependent on the existence of risk, it should be restricted to situations where there is an exceptional need for exceptional measures at an exceptional moment.

Nadim Houry

Director, Terrorism and Counterterrorism Program

The French government’s own website on the fight against terrorism noted in August 2016 that the government has “completed its legal arsenal and put in place an unprecedented reinforcement of its means in the police, justice, army and intelligence services.” France already has a raft of laws under the non-emergency regime that permit the authorities to investigate, detain, and prosecute terrorism suspects. Judicial controls in no way impede their effectiveness.

France needs to adopt a clear path out of the state of emergency. The parliamentary commission monitoring the state of emergency suggested in December setting an upper limit on the extension of a state of emergency but parliament ignored it and voted a fifth extension with almost no debate. Candidates in the upcoming presidential election have largely avoided talking about the issue, perpetuating the procrastination strategy by the political class, and journalists have not pushed them on the issue.

It is no longer enough to wait and hope that the security threat will simply vanish or that the future president or legislature will finally decide to tackle the issue. The debate about lifting the state of emergency should become a priority topic in this presidential election. Like any addict hoping to recover, France needs to start by recognizing the problem and begin a serious conversation on how to quit.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A house that the Egyptian army demolished in March 2018 in al-Arish as “retaliation” against suspects. 

© 2018 Private

(Beirut) – The Egyptian army has vastly expanded widespread destruction of homes, commercial buildings, and farms in the North Sinai governorate since February 9, 2018, as part of its military campaign against an affiliate of the Islamic State group there, Human Rights Watch said today. The new destruction, including hundreds of hectares of farmland and at least 3,000 homes and commercial buildings, together with 600 buildings destroyed in January, is the largest since the army officially began evictions in 2014.

The destruction, much of which is likely unlawful, has extended well beyond two government-designated security buffer zones in the cities of al-Arish and Rafah. The army also demolished several homes in al-Arish, in what appears to have been retaliation against terrorism suspects, political dissidents, and their relatives.

“Turning people’s homes into rubble is part of the same self-defeating security plan that has restricted food and movement to inflict pain on Sinai residents,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Egyptian army claims it is protecting people from militants, but it’s absurd to think that destroying homes and displacing lifelong residents would make them safer.”

The demolitions and forced evictions, without judicial oversight and with little or no assistance offered for temporary housing, have exacerbated the negative humanitarian impact caused by army-imposed restrictions on residents of the area, according to local residents. The army has conducted demolitions in northern Sinai as part of its continuous military operations since 2013, but in 2014 the government announced a plan to evict people from a 79-square-kilometer security buffer zone, including the entire city of Rafah, on the border with Gaza. The army said the evictions were needed to end smuggling of fighters and weapons through tunnels from Gaza. Between July 2013 and August 2015, the army demolished at least 3,250 buildings, and in late 2017, the government resumed these forced evictions.

The recent demolitions also include homes in a new security buffer zone around al-Arish airport. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said this was needed after the Sinai Province group (the Islamic State affiliate operating in Sinai) claimed responsibility for a missile attack on December 19, 2017 on an air base and a military helicopter. According to the Sinai Province group’s statement, the attack targeted the defense and interior ministers who were visiting the area. The attack did not harm the ministers but killed one army officer and injured two. There also have been a smaller number of demolitions inside the town of al-Arish, the most populous city in North Sinai.

Human Rights Watch sent letters, on May 10 and 11, 2018, to the Egyptian Defense Ministry, North Sinai Governor Abdel Fattah Harhor, and the State Information Service to inquire about the ongoing demolitions but has received no response.

The Egyptian army has vastly expanded widespread destruction of homes, commercial buildings, and farms in the North Sinai governorate since February 9, 2018, as part of its military campaign against an affiliate of the Islamic State group there. 


Human Rights Watch analyzed a time series of satellite imagery recorded between January 15 and April 14 and identified evidence of widespread building demolition in multiple villages and towns in North Sinai. Human Rights Watch concluded from its spatial analysis of the imagery that the army, during these months, demolished 3,600 buildings and razed hundreds of hectares of farmland within a 12-kilometer zone along the border with Gaza, along with the smaller pockets of demolition of over 100 buildings north of the al-Arish airport, which is just south of the city. The images reveal a major escalation in demolition activity after February 9. While Human Rights Watch identified over 600 other buildings demolished in January and early February, the army demolished at least 3,000 homes between February 9, when the government declared a major new security offensive, and April 15. The total number of buildings demolished so far in 2018 is the largest since the government ordered the eviction of residents from the Rafah buffer zone in October 2014.

Satellite Imagery Shows Building Demolition in Northern Sinai Satellite Imagery Shows Building Demolition in Northern Sinai

The Egyptian army has vastly expanded widespread destruction of homes, commercial buildings, and farms in the North Sinai governorate since February 9, 2018, as part of its military campaign against an affiliate of the Islamic State group there, Human Rights Watch said today. The new destruction, including hundreds of hectares of farmland and at least 3,000 homes and commercial buildings, together with 600 buildings destroyed in January, is the largest since the army officially began evictions in 2014.

The destruction, much of which is likely unlawful, has extended well beyond two government-designated security buffer zones in the cities of al-Arish and Rafah. The army also demolished several homes in al-Arish, in what appears to have been retaliation against terrorism suspects, political dissidents, and their relatives.

© 2018 CNES - 2018 Airbus DS

Before and After Satellite Imagery Shows Building Demolition in Northern Sinai Before and After Satellite Imagery Shows Building Demolition in Northern Sinai

The Egyptian army has vastly expanded widespread destruction of homes, commercial buildings, and farms in the North Sinai governorate since February 9, 2018, as part of its military campaign against an affiliate of the Islamic State group there, Human Rights Watch said today. The new destruction, including hundreds of hectares of farmland and at least 3,000 homes and commercial buildings, together with 600 buildings destroyed in January, is the largest since the army officially began evictions in 2014.

The destruction, much of which is likely unlawful, has extended well beyond two government-designated security buffer zones in the cities of al-Arish and Rafah. The army also demolished several homes in al-Arish, in what appears to have been retaliation against terrorism suspects, political dissidents, and their relatives.

© 2018 CNES - 2018 Airbus DS

Before: 2018 CNES - Airbus DS 2018


Most of the recently demolished buildings were those that had remained standing after the creation of the original five-kilometer security buffer zone area in Rafah. Now, the army has almost entirely demolished the city, where 70,000 people used to live. However, the army has also demolished at least 250 buildings outside of this zone since mid-January and most likely demolished hundreds more in 2017, according to analysis of satellite imagery that Human Rights Watch reviewed. The army also apparently began to construct a barbed-wire fence that would separate the five-kilometer buffer zone in Rafah from the rest of Sinai, the independent news website Mada Masr reported on May 18.

Three witnesses who spoke to Human Rights Watch, as well as corroborating news reports, indicated that security forces, primarily the army, demolished or set fire to several buildings in al-Arish that they claimed suspects or relatives of militants owned. The army has frequently announced the destruction of dozens of “terrorist hideouts” and vehicles without offering further details. A researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a government-run research entity, said that, based on official army statements, the army had demolished about 3,700 terrorist “hideouts, shelters, and stockrooms” within 10 weeks after the start of the February 9 offensive.

Witnesses and victims interviewed remotely told Human Rights Watch that the army began demolishing houses and razing farms around al-Arish Airport soon after President al-Sisi announced the five-kilometer airport buffer zone in January 2018.

“My younger brother called me,” said a man living outside Egypt whose family home in the city was destroyed. “He said that security forces came and forced my mother, grandmother, and younger brother out of the house. Then they set the whole building on fire.”

On January 5, the People’s Committee in al-Arish City, an independent gathering of clan leaders and activists, said in a statement that the escalating army campaign in the city and accompanying military posts and home demolitions were “paving the way” to “repeat what happened in Rafah.”

The committee called on the government to allow the local people’s councils, a traditional mechanism of community consultation through local representatives, to negotiate demands with the authorities. Forced evictions, even when justified for security reasons, should only be carried out after extensive and transparent negotiations with the local community to guarantee a fair process, Human Rights Watch said.

International law generally prohibits “forced evictions,” defined as the permanent or temporary removal of individuals, families, or communities against their will from their homes or land, without access to appropriate forms of legal or other protection. These protections include authorities carrying out genuine consultation with residents, adequate and reasonable notice, and adequate compensation or alternative housing. In conflict zones, deliberate, indiscriminate, or disproportionate attacks against civilians and civilian objects are prohibited, including all demolitions of residents’ homes not strictly required by military necessity.

“Abiding by the law is what should distinguish law enforcement from criminal groups, but Sinai residents appears to be singularly trapped between two fires – the army home demolitions on one side, and Sinai Province’s brutal violence on the other,” Whitson said.

President al-Sisi has imposed a state of emergency in North Sinai governorate since October 2014. The 1958 Emergency Law under which it was imposed has a number of draconian provisions, including allowing the authorities to evict residents of certain areas or properties with no judicial oversight or access to genuine appeal mechanisms.

Human Rights Watch could not find any official decrees that have been discussed in the parliament or published in the Official Gazette to lawfully frame al-Sisi’s January 2018 decision to create a buffer-zone around al-Arish airport or to establish clear measures for compensation for those whose homes and farms the authorities destroyed to make way for this buffer-zone. The Emergency Law requires the authorities to explain any verbal order in writing within eight days.

In a September 2015 report, Human Rights Watch documented the army’s destruction of 540 buildings between July 2013 and October 26, 2014. The report demonstrated that even before the government’s eviction decree had passed on October 26, 2014, the army had already demolished hundreds of buildings.

The satellite imagery Human Rights Watch examined of the recent demolitions suggests that it is highly probable Egyptian authorities are demolishing most buildings in a two-stage process. Initially, buildings in a targeted area are set on fire. Within weeks, what remains of the buildings are demolished either with heavy machinery or with uncontrolled detonation of high explosives. Farmland adjacent to demolished buildings appears to be razed with heavy machinery.

Human Rights Watch identified in satellite imagery hundreds of kilometers of heavy military vehicle tracks on farmland in North Sinai, running between large military bases and concentrations of demolished buildings.

Demolitions Under Secrecy
The recent demolitions in Sinai occur under near complete secrecy, and the government has not released any comprehensive figures on the numbers of houses demolished, families evicted, or citizens affected. The authorities last released official figures in mid-2016, when the North Sinai Governorate administration said that 5,324 families comprising 21,861 people had been displaced. Earlier official statements acknowledged that the army had demolished 2,022 homes as part of creating the Rafah buffer zone in 2014-2015.

In late 2017 and early 2018, pro-government newspapers reported that the government had resumed the “third” and “fourth” stages of its security plan to complete the eviction of residents remaining in the Rafah buffer zone announced in October 2014. Media reports quoted officials saying they were compensating the evicted families but did not give any details.

Both pro-government and independent Egyptian media reports citing families’ accounts suggest that the eviction process is largely unlawful and in violation of most of the safeguards provided for in international law. Human Rights Watch’s September 2015 report found that the eviction process in 2013 and 2014 was also unlawful.

In a rare public statement, Atef Ebied, the head of the Agriculture Directorate at North Sinai Governorate, was quoted in the privately owned al-Mal newspaper on May 3 as saying that “all farmlands in Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed cities were razed.” He also said that only 10 percent of farmlands in al-Arish remained. As a result, 80 percent of olive crops were lost, but Ebied said that land owners “would be compensated” with other farmlands in the city of Baer al-Abd.

A house that the Egyptian army demolished in March 2018 in al-Arish as “retaliation” against suspects. 

© 2018 Private

The People’s Committee in North Sinai, which includes representatives of al-Arish, Rafah, and Sheikh Zuwayed, released a statement on November 17, 2017 saying that “displacement is escalating and widening to the furthest borders of Rafah.” The statement also said that any compensation was already delayed and will “only equal a small percentage of [the value] of the demolished [houses].” The statement also accused the government of deliberately cutting water and electricity in evicted areas to force people to leave.

Reporting on the forced evictions and home demolitions in Rafah in September 2015, Human Rights Watch documented how the authorities offered residents little or no warning of evictions and ordered them to leave their houses within 24 or 48 hours. Evicted families said the authorities offered them no assistance in moving their possessions or in finding temporary housing. Judicial bodies did not oversee government compensation in the cases in which it was provided, and authorities offered no process for residents to appeal compensation decisions. Moreover, the government offered no compensation for damages to or destruction of farmland. Human Rights Watch research indicated that a lack of compensation and assistance to evicted families remained a serious concern for those affected in the wake of the latest demolitions and evictions.

Under the title “We Won’t Leave Sinai,” the People’s Committee in North Sinai said in a statement that “we want to be treated as human beings and citizens” and called on the government to compensate evicted people and allow them to return to Sinai.

“Anas,” from al-Arish but who now lives outside Egypt, said that in March the army razed his family’s 18-acre olive farm, three kilometers south of Al-Arish airport. Anas said that his family had owned this land for over 70 years, yet the army offered no compensation, nor did it record the number of olive trees destroyed so they could accurately calculate their value for fair compensation.

He said that the farm was the main source of income for his father and brother, and that several other farmers worked there. He said that there had been no clashes or militant activities close to their farm, but that the destruction of the farm was a “systematic policy of cutting trees and oppressing [residents].”

The demolitions and accompanying forced evictions have worsened the humanitarian situation for many North Sinai families, according to residents. Army restrictions since February 9 have largely put economic activities on hold, and many people have lost their sources of income.

Witnesses also said that since the new campaign started, the army has banned the transport of construction material to North Sinai and forbidden new construction.

Unlawful Home Demolitions of ‘Suspects,’ Dissidents
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the army has arrested people arbitrarily during neighborhood searches during the recent military offensive, and in several cases the army demolished buildings in al-Arish in “reprisal” against those wanted by the government. Media reports in December 2017 and March 2018 mentioned home demolitions of “suspects.”

A house that the Egyptian army demolished in al-Arish city in 2018 without providing justification.

© 2018 Private

Human Rights Watch interviewed three people whose homes the army demolished in March and April. Two of those interviewed were not in Sinai but their relatives and neighbors told them what happened. An activist provided Human Rights Watch with videos and photos of the three demolished homes, and the victims verified that these were their homes. There had been no clashes or militants around the houses in the months before the demolitions, the victims said. In two cases, they said that one or more of their relatives was politically active with the Muslim Brotherhood or other groups opposing the government.

“Yassin,” a young man now living outside Sinai, said that around midnight on March 31, the army, accompanied by police forces, demolished his family’s three-story building that had six apartments, three of them rented out to other families:

My younger brother called me. He said that security forces came and forced my mother, grandmother, and younger brother out of the house. Then they set the whole building on fire. They demanded our neighbors not help in extinguishing the fire … The fire did not leave anything [any furniture]. Security forces came again and demolished the whole building.

Yassin said that security forces did not offer any explanation. They only asked about one of his younger brothers who had fled their home because he had been arrested twice on accusations of “joining a banned group.” Yassin said that authorities tortured his brother in detention but later released him, pending trial. He also said that his father was detained for two months without charge.

“Nour,” a young man who now lives outside Egypt, said that the army demolished his family’s house in al-Arish on April 1. They lived on the second floor, while the ground floor was rented to a charity group. He said that his family had been stuck outside Sinai, unable to return home since February 9, when the army imposed severe movement restrictions on people coming in and out of the governorate. He first knew about the demolition from posts on Facebook and some friends who called him. He then called his mother. A neighbor told his mother that the army had surrounded the house without any prior notice and had come to demolish it, he said:

Soldiers fired their guns to disperse neighbors who [gathered to] prevent the demolition … After negotiations, neighbors removed some furniture and important possessions from home before the neighbors were dispersed again … They demolished the front of the building. And on the second and third day they resumed demolishing it.

He said that both his parents and three of his siblings used to live in the house. He believes the reason the army demolished the house was that their father, who has been detained for four years, was a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian government declared the group illegal in 2013 after ousting then-President Mohamed Morsy, a leader of the group. Nour also said he had been arrested twice and later released in a presidential pardon.

“Youssef,” an Islamist activist who lives outside Egypt, said the army demolished his two-story home in the al-Ayoub neighborhood in al-Arish on March 20 as a reprisal for his opposition to the government. He said that no one had lived in the house since October 2014 until two months earlier, when he rented the house to a family from Sheikh Zuwayed.

Both the army and police forces came to the house, forced the residents out, and demolished it two days later. He lost all of his furniture. He said that the authorities had previously arrested three of his brothers, and that the demolition was punishment for his political activities.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am


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.



This report documents abuses in the Sahel administrative region and Ouagadougou by armed Islamist groups and some members of the security forces between 2016 and 2018. During two research missions in 2018, Human Rights Watch conducted 67 interviews, 38 of which were with victims of and witnesses to abuses. The other 29 interviews were with justice, education and defense ministry officials; teachers, health workers and members of local government; diplomats, civil society activists and humanitarian workers; security analysts; and religious and community leaders.

Interviews took place in February and March 2018 in Burkina Faso; research by telephone was conducted in March, April and May 2018. The 38 victims and witnesses interviewed are residents of 17 towns and villages in northern Burkina Faso and Ouagadougou. Interviewees were identified with the assistance of several civil society organizations and numerous individuals. Interviews were conducted in French, Mossi, spoken in Ouagadougou and elsewhere, and Fulfulde, spoken by members of the Peuhl ethnic group. Interviews in Mossi and Fulfulde were conducted with the assistance of interpreters.

For security reasons, all interviews were conducted in or around Ouagadougou. Most victims and witnesses to incidents in northern Burkina Faso travelled to Ouagadougou for the interviews while a few, who had recently fled violence in the north, already lived there.

Many of the victims and witnesses interviewed could not remember the exact date of the incidents they described. The researcher sought to determine the approximate date by probing various reference points, such as if the abuse had happened before or after major holidays, seasonal events or attacks.

Nearly all victims and witnesses to abuse by both the armed Islamist groups and the security forces expressed extreme anxiety about their identities being revealed. As a result we have, in several cases, withheld details, including the location and precise date of some incidents, which might enable the identification of those who spoke with us.

The researcher informed all interviewees of the nature and purpose of the research, and our intention to publish a report with the information gathered. The researcher obtained oral consent for each interview and gave each interviewee the opportunity to decline to answer questions. All interviewees provided verbal informed consent to participate. Interviewees did not receive material compensation for speaking with Human Rights Watch, however travel expenses incurred were reimbursed.


Background on Armed Islamist Groups in Burkina Faso

Attacks by Islamist armed groups in Burkina Faso have been rising steadily since early 2016. In an October 2017 statement to the United Nations Security Council, Burkinabè Minister of Foreign Affairs, Alpha Barry, said Burkina Faso had since early 2016 suffered 80 attacks by armed Islamist groups, which have left 133 dead.[1]

The groups’ areas of operation are concentrated in the administrative provinces of Soum and Oudalan in the northern Sahel Region bordering Mali and Niger, and in Ouagadougou, the capital city. From late 2017, attacks have spread into other administrative regions notably the Est, Boucle du Mouhoun and Nord Regions.

A patchwork of groups with shifting and overlapping allegiances are involved in and have claimed responsibility for many of the attacks including Ansaroul Islam, 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. A 2013 French-led military intervention and 2015 peace agreement produced some stability in northern Mali, however from 2015, armed Islamist groups have spread to central Mali, and from 2016, into Burkina Faso.

Ansaroul Islam was founded in late 2016 by Islamic preacher Malam Ibrahim Dicko, a Soum native. Dicko gained popularity by denouncing corruption, inequality and abuses by the state, Peuhl clan leaders, and traditional chiefs.[2]From around 2009, he began spreading his message in local mosques and radios, primarily in the Sahel region, by way of a local religious association to promote Islam he founded, called Al-Irchad.[3] Dicko’s popularity and the membership in Al-Irchad steadily grew, but his discourse became progressively more radical and, in 2012, he joined up with armed Islamist groups which had taken over northern Mali. In 2013, he was detained by French forces and imprisoned in Bamako until 2015.[4] He eventually allied himself with a Malian AQIM affiliate, the Macina Liberation Front, and in 2016, formed Ansaroul Islam.

Combatants from Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist group Ansar Dine sit in a vehicle in Gao in northeastern Mali. The growing presence of armed Islamist 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. 

© 2012 Adama Diarra/Reuters

According to Human Rights Watch interviews with a few current or former members of armed Islamist groups, Ansaroul Islam has received training and logistical support from both AQIM and ISGS. It largely launches its attacks from bases in central Mali. In April 2017, an attack by French forces destroyed Ansaroul’s largest base in the Foulsaré forest, in Mali. A survivor of the attack told Human Rights Watch that some 20 Ansaroul members were killed, or died shortly after the attack from their wounds, illness or from dehydration, including Malam Dicko. Malam’s brother Jafar then took over leadership of the organization.

AQIM and its affiliates, especially JNIM have claimed responsibility for numerous attacks in Burkina.[5] These include the April 2015 kidnapping of Romanian mine worker Iulian Ghergut, the January 2016 attack on a Ouagadougou restaurant and hotel, the January 2016 kidnapping of Australian doctor Ken Elliot, and the March 2, 2018 attack in Ouagadougou on the army headquarters and French Embassy. [6]

Armed Islamist groups active in the Sahel have since 2012 concentrated their recruitment efforts on the ethnic Peuhl. In 2012, Human Rights Watch documented a cross border recruitment operation bringing Peuhl men and boys from both Niger and Burkina Faso into Gao, Mali for training by AQIM affiliate the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO.) Since then, significant numbers of Peuhl men have been recruited into armed Islamist groups in central Mali and northern Burkina.

Since 2015, numerous Peuhl community leaders from the Sahel countries have told Human Rights Watch they are concerned about the Islamists exploitation of community frustration with poverty, government corruption, generational disputes within Peuhl clan leadership, the lack of justice for common crime, and abusive conduct by the security forces to garner recruits. They also expressed concern about what they perceive to be a demonization of the Peuhl community, who, they say, are blamed for the rising insecurity in the Sahel, and about collective punishment meted out against them by the security forces.[7]

At time of writing, the violence and insecurity in Burkina Faso had led to the internal displacement of over 12,000 residents,[8] 5,000 of whom fled as a consequence of violence in late 2017.[9] Another 2,000 Burkinabè have sought refuge in neighboring Mali.[10]

The spread of militant attacks throughout the Sahel has sparked diplomatic and military engagement by the international community, and, in 2017, led to the creation of a five-nation counterterrorism military force, the G5 Sahel Joint Force. The force will include troops from Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad, and will coordinate their operations with 4,000 French troops serving with Operation Barkhane, and with 12,000 United Nations peacekeeping troops already in Mali.


Killings and Intimidation by Islamist Armed Groups in Northern Burkina Faso

We fear these people (armed Islamists) …they have threatened, killed, and kidnapped us. Our schools are closed, there is no food, and the economy is dying. If I could take my whole village and leave this place I would.
 — Village elder from the Sahel region, February 2018.

Numerous villagers from the Sahel region described being frightened by the presence of armed Islamist fighters who had, since 2016, periodically passed through their areas. Many residents said the armed fighters warned them not to provide information on their whereabouts to the state security services; others said they felt pressured to collaborate, including by selling them petrol and provisions. Several residents of different ethnic groups said they have been abducted, questioned and in some cases beaten or robbed by the armed men.

Human Rights Watch documented 19 alleged execution-style killings by Islamist armed groups which occurred between November 2016 and April 2018. Most of the victims were ethnic Peuhl and had been killed within or around the villages or towns of Djibo, Nassoumbou, Tem, Sona, Dohouré, Koutougou, Kenou, Kourfayel, Soboulé, Yorsala and Pétéga, all withinthe Soum Province. Armed Islamists are suspected in the killing of a teacher in Kain, in the Nord Region.

Those targeted included village counselors, mayors, village elders, marabouts, retired security force members, and teachers. Most had been killed in their homes or villages; a few had been held in bush camps in Burkina Faso or Mali for several days before being killed.

Witnesses described a similar method used by the alleged armed Islamists involved in the abductions and killings in which several men armed with semi-automatic weapons, notably AK-47’s, on motorcycles would ride into a town or village to abduct or directly shoot at the victim, who appeared to have been directly targeted. After the abduction or assault, they would quickly leave.

Armed Islamist groups rarely claim responsibility for these killings. However, witnesses, security sources and community leaders noted several reasons why they firmly believed the armed Islamists were responsible for the killings: First, because many of the victims were clearly identified as representatives of the state, against whom armed Islamists have waged armed attacks. Second, because witnesses from several of the incidents identified some of the perpetrators involved in the killings as former adherents of Al-Irchad and believed them to be current members of Ansaroul Islam. Third, because the armed men rarely stole from the victims, suggesting banditry was not a motive. And fourth, because several of the victims had, according to witnesses, previously received warnings from the armed Islamists.

The witnesses believed many of the men were executed for their alleged collaboration with the security forces; some victims were allegedly executed after information provided had led to the arrest or death of a suspect by the security forces. A few former Al-Irchad members were allegedly killed for refusing to support the group’s evolution into Ansaroul Islam. Some of those killed represented the social classes and clans Al-Irchad had long-denounced, while a few others were reportedly killed by the armed Islamists to settle personal scores. Banditry, notably cattle theft, accompanied some of these incidents.

A Peuhl herder shepherds his cows in the Soum province of Burkina Faso. The vast majority of the victims of abuses by both the armed Islamists and the security forces are ethnic Peuhl, whose communities are largely located in the north of Burkina Faso. 

© 2018 Kisal

On or around February 26, 2018, the bodies of Harouna Hassan Dicko and Housseni Ousmanne Dicko, both around 50 years-old, were found a few kilometers from their home in Djibo with deep gashes in their throats. A neighbor noted: “The Jihadists took them away and several days later we found their bodies. The jihadists have really targeted this family, maybe because they’re active in local government and support the security forces.” This witness, who described being very close to the family, said the men had “been threatened by Ansaroul several times for having helped the authorities.” [11] Witnesses provided Human Rights Watch with photographs of the victims.

On April 17, 2018, Agence France Presse reported that a spokesperson for the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) had taken responsibility for the April 8, 2018, killing of Hamidou Koundaba, the mayor of the commune of Koutougou (120 kilometers from Djibo), for collaborating with the government.[12] A witness described the attack to Human Rights Watch:

During the 6 p.m. prayer, two men armed with Kalashnikovs, dressed in camouflage, came into the village on a moto, and went directly to the Mayor’s compound. One stopped in front, while the other went directly into his house …they were speaking in Pulaar….it happened quickly. They killed him then fled. He’d been shot three times – on the left shoulder, then twice in the chest. Everyone in Koutougou is shocked by the brutality.[13]

Several villagers described what appeared to be coordinated operations in which from four to a dozen armed Islamists on motorcycles carried out near-simultaneous killings in several villages. An elder described one such operation in mid-September 2017, in which three men who reportedly opposed Ansaroul Islam were killed:

At around 3 a.m., we heard the sound of motorcycles, yelling and then gunfire…the next day we saw the bodies on the road between Dohouré and Oudouga villages. They’d all been shot several times in the chest. The villagers explained that one group of about six Ansaroul had dragged out the village chief of Dohouré-Fulbe, Dicko Amadou Mincalou. At the same time another group took away the marabout and a young man named Tamboura from nearby Dohouré-Rimaïbé. All three were known for refusing to adhere to their agenda…they’d rejected Ansaroul from the very beginning and some days prior, the army arrested four members of a family from Dohouré and sent them to the High Security Prison in Ouagadougou….I think it was related... [14]

About two months later, on November 27, the armed Islamists returned to the same village,Dohouré-Rimaïbé, and killed Aissama Tamboura, the municipal counselor. A villager said: “He was on their list the first time, but had gone to the Mec (Mecca) for pilgrimage. In November, they came around midnight, broke into his house and shot him again and again….we understood he’d told the authorities about the Jihadists presence near our village.”[15]

A villager said of another such operation, on November 12, 2016, which targeted two village counselors and a former Al-Irchad leader:

I was at a celebration when I got a call saying, ‘careful, we just saw three motorcycles heading towards you.’ Suddenly two men on a motorcycle who we recognized as being adherents of Malam rocked up and took up position in front of the village counselor from Soboulé who had come to our village to take part. One of the jihadists tried to fire but his gun jammed and the population set upon him and beat him severely. I recognized the gunmen…they used to be in Al-Irchad. Sometime later, I received calls explaining how other groups of jihadists had, around the same time, executed Tamboura Amadou Oumarou, a village counselor in nearbyPétéga, and, in Djibo, Amadou Boli from Al-Irchad. The people they hunted had opposed Malam’s new organization. [16]

According to the same witness, the Soboulé village counselor, Hassan Dicko, who had narrowly escaped assassination in November 2016, was killed by the armed Islamists, on February 4, 2017. “He tried to flee, but they caught up with him a few months later; they got him in a village south of Djibo called Yorsola.” [17] The local media reported that the attack left both Dicko and his five-year old son dead, while another son was wounded.[18]

One terrified witness, who asked Human Rights Watch not to include the name of his village or the date of the incident for fear of reprisal, described how he “was being hunted” for his opposition to the Islamists. “I’d just finished praying when I heard the sound of motorcycles which are forbidden at night so I knew it was them. I ran to hide, but saw them – four motos, two on each. Two forced their way into my house - they overturned the beds looking for me, and when they didn’t see me, went to other houses. I heard gunshots and later saw the people they killed, in their homes…. they were known to support the army.” [19]

A shepherd described the killing around October 2017 of 57 year-old animal herder, Uyah DIicko, who lived in a hamlet near Tchembolo:

I was woken up by the commotion. Two of them arrived, forced their way into his house calling his name two times – he said, ‘I’m coming’…he hadn’t even gotten up when one of them said, ‘fire him’ in Pulaar…they shot him and fired in the air as they left. They didn’t steal anything – I saw three bullets – on his side and leg – he was critical of Al-Irchad. They’d tried to recruit him since 2011 but he refused. [20]

A witness to the killing of an alleged informant in Diguel Commune, in late June or early July 2017, said:

He wasn’t careful…he’d recently returned from exile in Cote d’ Ivoire and used to boast about having the numbers of security force members on his phone. He said, ‘I survived the violence in Abidjan, I can survive this!’ We warned him to be more careful, but he kept saying, ’ They can’t kill me! ’ but they did.….He’d just returned home from the boutique when they drove up and opened fire on him……I counted four gunshot wounds. They’d hidden their guns inside their boubous.[21]

A local trader described seeing the decapitated body of an elderly man in late 2017. Three villagers said they believed the man had been targeted because of his work as a guide for the Environmental Police, a force which has been attacked on several occasions by armed Islamist groups.[22] “We heard about his abduction from a village 12 kilometers from Nassoumbou, where he used to take his animals for water, and nine days later we found him…I was there when his family came for his body…they were in shock. I heard his head was left close to the office of the Environmental Police (Eaux et Forêts.) but I couldn’t bear to go.” [23]


Attacks on Education by Islamist Armed Groups in Northern Burkina Faso

We were making progress in getting more children from northern Burkina Faso to enroll in school, but since 2016 the insecurity has set us back and reversed this trend.
 — Education official in Ouagadougou, March 2018.

Education sector workers described several threats and attacks against schools and teachers by armed Islamists which began in January 2017. The majority of attacks were directed at schools in Soum Province, where armed Islamist groups are most active, but from November 2017, there have been several threats against schools in the Oudalan province, as well as in Burkina’s Nord and Est regions.

Human Rights Watch documented threats against teachers; the killing of a school director and a teacher; and the abduction of a teacher and death of a student, reportedly by stray bullets, during the same incident.

Witnesses from a dozen villages described armed Islamists travelling on motorcycles threatening teachers to change their secular curriculum to Quranic education and to replace the language of instruction from French to Arabic. Said one teacher: “The message is clear, ‘don’t teach in French and if you insist, we’ll kill you.’”

While students have not been directly targeted with violence, the attacks and general insecurity in the north have resulted in the flight of teachers and school closures, thereby undermining the right to education.

A representative of a national teacher’s union said that from early 2016 until the end of February 2018, at least 219 primary and secondary schools in the north had been closed on account of the threats, leaving 20,163 students out of school. He said schools in the more isolated rural areas close to the borders with Mali and Niger were particularly vulnerable to the threats.[24]

At an April 19, 2018 cabinet meeting where threats on education was discussed, it was further noted that that 895 teachers from the Sahel and Nord regions had been affected by school closures.[25]

Education officials said the Sahel region has historically had one of the lowest rates of primary school attendance and that they feared the attacks in the region would reverse recent progress in increasing children’s access to education.[26]

The primary school enrollment rate in the Sahel Region has been the lowest in the country for over a decade. In the 2014-2015 school year, before the outbreak of violence in the region, the primary school gross enrollment rate was 51.9 percent compared to 83.7percent nationally.[27]

Security sources said the threats and attacks against the education sector were being carried out by both Ansaroul and the ISGS.[28] Agence France Press reported that ISGS took responsibility for the April 12, 2018 abduction of primary school teacher Issouf Souabo in Bourou (in Soum Privince, 40 kilometers from DJibo).[29] The ISGS spokesman reportedly said the teacher had been targeted for teaching in French.[30] A witness to the abduction, which also resulted in the death of student Sana Sakinatou, told Human Rights Watch:

At around 4 p.m., when children were in class, around five armed men came to the school – they fired a round of shots in the air – people started running in all different directions. During the panic, the confusion, a student of CM2, was shot…he was not targeted but it hit him anyway. The teacher, who had just started teaching there, was not able to escape – he was taken by force by the attackers…they left toward the North.[31]

The March 3, 2017 alleged killing by armed Islamists of 28 year-old Salifou Badini, the director of Kourfayel Primary school (7 kilometers from Djibo) and another man provoked the panicked departure of scores of teachers from northern Burkina Faso. No group claimed responsibility for the attack, however Burkina Faso’s then-minister of Education, blamed the killing on armed men “trying to create a general psychosis to stop education” in the country.[32] A family member told Human Rights Watch:

I was called at 10:47 a.m. saying Salifou was dead. I called him but there was no answer. The primary school had three classes and taught kids from 7 to 10. His body was behind the school, on other side of the window – as if he was trying to escape. He’d been shot in the head, chest and back. A villager who acted as messenger was also killed, inside the school in a small office. They were killed during the recess; thank God the children were not in class. The villagers said the men arrived on a motorcycle, their faces covered with turbans, and with automatic rifles. He was charismatic and funny. This was his third year at the school – he was loved, and the day he died I saw the children crying. We don’t know why he was targeted. [33]

During the night of November 26, 2017, armed men attacked the residence of several teachers from the high school in Kain, (Yatenga Province, Nord region), killing one teacher, Koumayan Soulemane, and wounding two others. The attack provoked the flight of local government officials and the closure of several schools and the health center.[34] Witnesses to the attack and a school official interviewed by Human Rights Watch said the motive for the attack remained unclear, but that they suspected the armed Islamists, primarily because of the town’s close proximity to areas of Mali where the armed Islamist presence is well-established. This case merits further investigation. A witness said:

At around 10:15 p.m., I saw a few of the teachers chatting outside their house. Soulemane was inside preparing his lessons. Suddenly, there was the sound of a motorcycle, and off in the distance the movement of men…then a loud noise, which I thought was a tire exploding. Then, suddenly, shots rang out, ….they armed men shot on the teachers house, breaking the windows. They went inside, killing Soulemen and wounding two others As the armed men left, they stole two motorcycles. The attacked has provoked panic to this day. The schools are closed and we are frightened all the time, especially given how close we are to Malian villages where those people (armed Islamists) are. [35]

A local official responsible for documenting attacks on education in the Sahel Region said that on November 14, 2017, two armed Islamists confronted the director of a small school near Deou in the early evening as he was preparing lessons. “They asked the director what language he taught in, told him teaching in French was Haram, and asked him to recite the Quran. They ordered him to close the school, burned his motorcycle and fired in the air as they left. Ironically, they themselves were speaking in French.” He described a similar incident, on January 21, 2018, at a school near Tin-Akoff. Both schools were subsequently abandoned by the teachers.[36]

An elder from Baraboulé described a spate of attacks on schools and threats against teachers in his area. “In February 2017 they threatened teachers in Lassa, Pelem Pelem, Fetakouba and other villages, saying ‘we don’t want to come here and find you teaching in French.’ In March 2017, I rushed to the Baraboulé Primary school after Ansaroul had set it alight and found the blackboard, tables and benches burning. The state rebuilt it already – they’re trying to stop kids from losing a year of education.”[37]

Teachers and community leaders said four factors had made teachers more vulnerable to attack and intimidation. First, most teachers were contracted and paid by the state, and provoking their flight furthered the Islamists agenda of ridding the north of state institutions. Second, Ansaroul Islam was punishing teachers who had received benefits from Al-Irchad but refused to support the group’s evolution into an armed insurgency. As articulated by a teacher’s union official, “Al-Irchad had adopted a strategy of paying the debts taken on by teachers, including for buying land, constructing their houses, or educating their children. This practice indebted the teachers to [them]. At first, teachers thought it was an act of charity until they realized what Irchad was asking of them.” [38] Third was the perception that some teachers were being used to provide intelligence to the security services. Lastly, as noted by one teacher: “If you want to get recruits, waging war with their heads through indoctrination at an early age is a good way to go.” [39]

In responding to the April 12, 2018 abduction by ISGS of a teacher and killing of a student in Bourou village, Prime Minister Paul Kaba Thiéba, and Minister of Education and Literacy, Stanislas Ouaro, announced plans to strengthen school security in the north, to ensure students were able to finish their courses and take exams on time, and to provide psychological care for students and teachers impacted by the insecurity.[40]


Militant Attacks in Ouagadougou

Even war isn’t like this….in war your enemy gives you a chance to fight for your life.
Street vender wounded in January 15, 2016 attack in Ouagadougou, March 2018

Seven survivors of brutal assaults on Ouagadougou hotels, cafés and other gathering places in Ouagadougou described the attacks to Human Rights Watch. On January 15, 2016, three gunmen opened fire on the terrace of le Cappuccino café and later attacked the Splendid hôtel, and ‘maquis’ Taxi Brousse. Thirty people from at least 11 countries were killed and over 70 wounded. The dead included eight Burkinabè, four members of a Ukrainian family, including a nine-year old child, and four members of a Canadian family. One victim explained:

At first, I thought it was a robbery, but when they turned on the clients, we knew it was something else. Over 40 of us rushed into the bathroom where, pressed together, we turned off our phones and prayed. Only God stopped the terrorists from coming in. I listened to them walking around, shooting…pam pam…then ‘Allahu Akbar.’ We heard explosions – grenades they’d set off — which set the place on fire. As it filled with smoke, I started to suffocate and forced my way out, gasping for air, assuming I might be shot but I was dying in there. The owner lost his wife, his son, and his mother and sister in law…three generations hit by terrorism.

Another employee who survived the attack said, “Each time I come to work, I see the dead: three slumped on that table, five over there, two here. I live that day again and again and again.”

A 28 year-old street vendor left disabled from a bullet lodged in his upper thigh said:

I was chatting on the terrace when three men with long guns heavily laden with ammunition appeared and took up position a few meters away……I took off running but was hit and fell down. I was bleeding so much but dragged myself little by little while they continued killing people… I shielded myself behind a vehicle then used my belt to stop the bleeding,…. I passed out and only came to because my shoe had caught fire from petrol leaking from a burning car.[41]

On August 13, 2017, two men opened fire on the terrace of the Aziz Istanbul Patisserie Café. Before the attackers were killed by members of the Special Intervention Unit of the National Gendarme (USIGN), 18 people, the majority of them Burkinabès, and victims from seven other nations would be dead and over 20 wounded. No one has claimed responsibility for this attack.

Armed Islamist groups Al-Qaeda and Al-Mourabitoun claimed the January 15, 2016 attack on the “Cappuccino” restaurant and cafe in Ouagadougou, which killed 30 people and left more than 70 wounded.

© 2016 Joe Penney/Reuters

A security guard said:

The place was packed with people celebrating two birthdays. At around 9 p.m. two men on a moto crashed into a car in front of the Istanbul. We laughed that people these days don’t know how to drive. But then they got up, took out guns and started shooting into all those people celebrating. I ran for my life, thinking, ‘Oh God, not again.’ Hours later, in hiding, I saw them taking out the bodies, one by one. I’d left my phone on charge and when I finally reached home, my family burst into tears seeing I was alive.[42]

On March 2, 2018, Al-Qaeda-affiliate JNIM targeted Burkinabè army headquarters and the French Embassy, reportedly in retaliation for the killing of some of their members by French forces in Mali.[43] No civilians were killed, however dozens were wounded.


Burkina Faso Security Force Violations

“When the security forces kill in the name of terrorism, they are acting no better than the jihadists. The state has laws; it has signed international conventions. It must take the moral high ground and be better than they are.”
— Burkinabè human rights defender, February 2018.

Human Rights Watch documented 14 alleged summary executions by state security forces, and four deaths in their custody. Several other cases witnesses believe implicate members of the security forces merit further investigation. All of the alleged abuses occurred in 2017 and early 2018 within Soum Province, including around the towns of Nassoumbou, Djibo, Bourou, Baraboulé, Inata, Sona and Tchembolo. The majority occurred between September 2017 and February 2018.

Witnesses, community members and security sources said the alleged perpetrators were members of the Burkina Faso Army, the National Gendarmerie, two special units created to respond to the growing threat from armed Islamist groups (the Combined Anti-Terrorist Forces and the Special Intervention Unit of the National Gendarmerie), and to a lesser extent, the National Police.[44]

The Combined Anti-Terrorist Forces (GFAT) is made up of both soldiers and gendarmes and is headquartered in Kaya, 100 kilometers from Ouagadougou.[45] GFAT units are based in several towns including Nassoumbou,[46] Koutougou,[47] Djibo, Dori, and Ouahigouya. The GFAT was formed under a 2012 decree to strengthen the defense and security forces and is under the direct command of the Army Chief of Staff. Security sources said GFAT’s troops rotate from field bases every three months.[48]

Soldiers from Burkina Faso take part in a training exercise in Burkina Faso on April 13, 2018.

© 2018 Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images

The Special Intervention Unit of the National Gendarme (USIGN) is an elite 300-strong special counter-terrorism unit within the national gendarme.[49] While operational since 2012, it was formally created by a 2015 decree signed by authorities in the transitional government. USIGN is tasked with the fight against terrorism, including hostage releases and gathering intelligence, and the fight against organized crime.[50] The unit, part of the defense and Security Forces, is based in Ouagadougou, attached to the National Gendarme and is under the command of the Chef d’Etat-major of the Gendarme.

Most witnesses were unable to identify the individual security force members, commanders or particular units involved in the security force violations described below, with most simply describing the alleged perpetrators as “soldiers” or “gendarmes.” Similarly, most witnesses did not distinguish between the army and GFAT or between the gendarmerie and USIGN.

Witnesses did, however, clearly describe those involved as dressing in military uniform, driving in state vehicles known to be used by the security forces and, in a few cases, being detained by soldiers manning checkpoints or being detained within well-known bases.

The numbers of alleged perpetrators involved in the abuses documented varied: some incidents involved a few security force members while others took place in the context of large operations involving numerous vehicles filled with security force personnel.

About a dozen witnesses described seeing bodies along roads and on footpaths near the towns of Djibo, Nassoumbou, and Bourem, among others. They and people with knowledge of the incidents said most of these men had last been seen in the custody of government security forces based or operating in or around the same towns. Several witnesses said some of the alleged killings occurred shortly after armed Islamist attacks which had killed or injured security forces members or local government officials.

Diplomats, aid workers and community leaders expressed concerns about what they said was a spate of unlawful killings by the security forces in the second half of 2017. A diplomat told Human Rights Watch, “it is widely known in the north that several people arrested by the security forces have been found dead the next day. It was especially bad in late 2017. No one is addressing this problem.”[51] A humanitarian worker who had tracked the incidents said several killings directly followed attacks in which security force members had died.[52] A local business woman and humanitarian worker from the Soum said, “to find bodies on the roads is not normal yet no one is denouncing it.” A security source with knowledge of the killings said he believed the bodies were left in the open “as part of a strategy to frighten people from joining Ansaroul.”[53]

A few witnesses from Nassoumbou said they believed soldiers based in the Nassoumbou and whom they believed to be from the GFAT were responsible for some abuses. An army communique from January 15, 2018 noted that “GFAT units carry out daily operations in the north of Burkina Faso” to help secure the region. [54]

Two security experts, witnesses and two community leaders interviewed by Human Rights Watch alleged the involvement of USIGN personnel in a few of the killings described in this report. One of the security experts said some members of what he believed to be USIGN  were based in the Sahel region from early 2017 until February 2018 and operated out of different gendarmerie headquarters. “They work closely with the state security services to identify alleged terrorists – on the basis of lists – and are responsible for some of the bodies turning up on the streets. They’re giving the other gendarmes a bad rap.”[55]

Several residents of villages and towns in the north interpreted the security force response to a given killing, or lack thereof, as one indicator of their responsibility in some of the abuses. One elder explained: “When the Jihadists are suspected in a killing, the security forces react differently; they launch an investigation, they take over the whole village often blocking entrances; they make arrests; they denounce it on the radio, on social media, in statements. When a body shows up and they don’t do any of that, we suspect the security forces. The suspicion is even stronger when the authorities detain or summon for questioning other members of the deceased man’s family.”[56]

The vast majority of victims of security force abuse in the cases documented were ethnic Peuhl. A village elder noted, “some of those arrested have ties to the Jihadists, and if they are a terrorist, yes, of course, arrest, try and convict them. But too many of us are beaten or worse, executed by the same people who are paid to protect us.”[57]

Numerous Peuhl leaders said the abuse was encouraging members of their community to join the armed groups. One village chief observation was typical: “Their harsh behavior is driving people to Ansaroul.”[58]

Alleged Extrajudicial Executions

On December 27, 2017, soldiers detained 27 men as they fled Damba hamlet following an incursion and attempted kidnapping of a village man by Islamists. After spending one night in detention within a security force camp in Sona, eight of the men were separated from the larger group and killed. The remaining men were transferred to an army and later gendarme camp in Djibo. One of five witnesses to the events interviewed by Human Rights Watch explained:           

Jihadists came to Damba to kidnap a Songhoi resident, so the Peuhl (of Damba) – fearing an army operation — decided to flee until things calmed down. The soldiers encircled the village looking for Jihadists and started detaining us. They confiscated our ID cards, blindfolded us with our turbans, tied our hands and put 27 of us in a large military truck. It was a big operation – with several vehicles and dozens of soldiers. Before leaving, they set a house and two motorcycles on fire. Two men tried to flee and were badly beaten. At twilight we arrived to Sona camp about 10 kilometers away. They called us one by one out of the vehicle, took off our blindfolds and ordered us into a building in the camp; we were not beaten. The next morning, the soldiers called us one by one by our names, put the blindfolds back on and ordered us into a waiting military vehicle. But eight names were not called; they were the ones whose bodies were later found….two of them were brothers, most were from the same big family. They took the rest of us to Djibo military camp where we spent eight days, and later the gendarmerie where we were interrogated. Of our group of 27, eight were killed, four sent to prison in Ouagadougou and the rest of us were freed. Why would they do this to my village…we too fear Ansaroul. [59]

A security source and two witnesses said the Sona camp houses a detachment of gendarmes who were originally deployed there to secure a nearby goldmine, which has now suspended operations. They said they believe it is now used periodically by soldiers when conducting military operations in the area.[60]

Two other witnesses described the location where the eight men were allegedly shot. One said: “We buried seven men in two common graves some 12 miles from Damba. We found five in one place and the others, 100 meters or so away. All had been shot, some in the head…some were blindfolded, others bound by the hands. One man was still breathing….he was taken to a nearby village.”[61]

A witness who cared for the wounded man said: “he kept asking for water…he’d been shot in the intestines. When the authorities heard he was alive, they detained him again but the gendarmes in Nassoumbou called to tell us he’d died a few hours later; that we should come for the body.”[62]

Security sources and two diplomats told Human Rights Watch they believed the killing of Moumouni Moussa Dicko, an animal merchant and local government official from Kérboulé (Nassoumbou Commune) was carried out by members of the security services.[63] A community elder said he had complained about his killing by members of the security services to members of the government.

Two witnesses spoke with Mr. Dicko after he had been summoned on September 27, 2017 by gendarmes based in Djibo. His body was found the next morning. “I was with Moumouni when he received a call; after hanging up he told me, ‘I was just called by [name withheld]; he needs me to stop by the gendarmerie.’”[64]

Another witness said, “I saw Moumouni in Djibo at around 5 p.m., near the market; he told me he was buying something to give the gendarmes; that he was on his way in to see them. At 6 a.m. the next day I saw a body lying on the road as I was leaving the Djibo bus station…they called me to say it was Moumouni.”[65] A third witness described seeing his body in the morgue on September 28, “with an impact in the chest. I called his family, asking after Moumouni, but they said, ‘he was summoned by the gendarmes last night…we don’t know what’s going on but we’re bringing him food later today.’ I couldn’t bear to tell them what I knew.”[66] A friend of the family said several members of Mr. Dicko’s family were later themselves arrested and held for questioning within the gendarmerie.[67]

On October 13, 2017, Franco-Arab teacher Amadou Dicko, 45 years-old, was forced onto a motorcycle as he was leaving the mosque after evening prayers in the sector 4 neighborhood of Djibo. His body was found several hours later. Two security analysts, community leaders and a member of the diplomatic community told Human Rights Watch their inquiries into this case suggested security force involvement.[68] A witness from Djibo said:

We were together in the early evening and agreed to meet up later, but minutes later I got a frantic call from a friend saying he’d just seen Amadou abducted by three men with pistols dressed in civilian attire, that he’d been forced onto their motorcycle, fighting. We heard gunshots sometime later, and later that night found his body less than a mile away on the road going from Djibo to Ouagadougou. He was on his back, with a bullet on the side. We called the police to file a complaint, they went, but were grumbling about him being a jihadist. [69]  

A merchant described the early March 2018 detention by soldiers of Sadou Moumouni Dicko, around 45, who worked as a camel porter in the Nassoumbou market. “From 10 meters away, I saw two soldiers on a Yamaha [motorcycle] and armed with Kalashnikovs in the market. Sadou had just arrived and tied up his camel. The soldiers seemed to be looking for him. They asked for his ID, and when they verified it was him, they handcuffed him, put him between the two of them on their motorcycle, and drove away. We heard gunshots later that day, and found his body the next day in Fina, a small hamlet just north of Nassoumbou; face down, with his eyes bound. He’d been shot in the head.[70]

In late November 2017, the bodies of two traders a witness said had been arrested at an army checkpoint as they were leaving the Nassoumbou market to return to their village, called Tem, were found the next day some four kilometers south. The witness said:          

One had come to buy animal feed and the other to sell his iron wares. I’d also been at the market that day selling. The army checkpoint is a few kilometers north of the market and they were arrested around 16hr and put in a pickup. I’m sure the checkpoint is manned by the Army, we see their cars leaving the camp, going to the checkpoint and then returning. The dead… their faces were totally covered with their turbans… it looked like they’d been shot in the head...blood had soaked their clothing. Later the families came to take their bodies for burial. I heard their people (family members) complaining that the gendarmes refused to investigate the incident but had, they themselves, been interrogated as suspects.[71]

A witness described seeing three bodies near Nassoumbou over the course of a week while he was searching for his 25-year-old relative who’d last been seen after having been detained by soldiers near Bourou, in November 2017. One of the dead was his family member; the other two victims are discussed below. He said:

A friend called around 4 p.m. saying ‘the soldiers just took [name withheld] as he was walking back from market!’ The next day I asked for help from the security forces in Nassoumbou…all they said was, “you should tell the Jihadists to stop attacking us.’ A week after [name withheld] disappeared, I was told of another body near Kabakoy village. As soon as I saw, I knew. His hands were tied, his body swollen, with three holes in the chest, two in the head. I called a gendarme to ask them to make a report, but all he said, was, ‘you should just bury him.’[72]

Suspected Summary Executions Meriting Further Investigation

Witnesses, civil society leaders and village leaders described eight other cases of alleged unlawful killings by those they suspected were members of the security forces. Human Rights Watch was unable to speak with direct witnesses of these cases, but we believe all of them merit further investigation.

One witness searching for his family member detained by the security forces near Bourou (see Alleged Extrajudicial Executions section) described seeing two other bodies before finding that of his family member. He speculated that one of them had similarly been detained and killed by the security forces. He said:

Two days after my family member was detained I heard there was a body one kilometer south of the Nassoumbou army camp. I went expecting to see him but instead a few meters off the road was another man; blindfolded and bound…he’d been shot several times – in the head and neck; later residents of Bourou village told me his name and said that he had been gone missing after being arrested by soldiers based in Nassoumbou. Later that day, I learned of another body — but again it wasn’t my relative – his hands had been tied with a rubber cord…he’d been dead for a few days.[73]

One man was allegedly killed after the killing of a village chief by armed Islamists: “We found a few bodies after the chief from Tem village was killed by Ansaroul. One was Issa Dicko who was killed in November [2017]; he’d come to Nassoumbou for a funeral and was arrested by the security forces in front of everyone while repairing his bike tire. I did not see his arrest but later saw his body on the left side of the road, several kilometers before Djibo. He was face down…his eyes bound with white cloth.” [74]

In late September or early October 2017, two witnesses saw the bodies of three men a few kilometers south of the Inata gold mine (commune of Tongomayel). They had been told the men had previously been arrested by the security forces. A security analyst who closely monitors attacks in the north told Human Rights Watch he believed the security forces had been involved in these killings, which merit further investigation.[75] A witness explained:

I’d gone to Tchembolo to buy millet and the whole village was talking about the arrest, at around midnight, of three men who had been taken away by men in uniform, in a military vehicle. That same Friday I saw the bodies near the turnoff (crossroads) for Gomde. A few days later, I saw another body next to the fence that surrounds Inata mine. I knew two of the dead from Tchembolo…they were marabouts. After this, I fled to [Ouagadougou]…when they detain, kill or disappear your neighbor, you begin to fear your day is coming.”[76]

A community leader said the killings near Inata occurred shortly after attacks by armed Islamists in the same general vicinity had left several dead, including two gendarmes killed by an explosive device on September 26, 2017, and three civilians, all near Tourounata.[77] These incidents, which were also reported in the media, merit further investigation.[78]

A Tuareg rights group and family members told Human Rights Watch that in early December 2017, two Tuareg refugees from Mali, Abdou Ag Alhousseiny and Mohamed Ag Amano, had allegedly been mistreated and later killed at or near an army checkpoint near Ariel on December 1, 2017. They said the men had reportedly obtained travel authorization from Burkinabè authorities to leave the Mentao refugee camp in which they resided. Human Rights Watch was unable to speak with a direct witness to the arrest but was provided with photographs of the bodies and motorcycle of the deceased men.[79]

Mass Arrests and Mistreatment and Deaths in Detention

Community leaders complained of numerous instances in which the security forces appeared to randomly detain men who happened to be in the vicinity of incursions, attacks or ambushes by armed Islamist groups.

They characterized the arrests of the men, detained on their way to local markets, gathered at a watering hole, or in their village, as collective punishment. They said the vast majority of detainees were released after preliminary investigations by the local gendarmerie, suggesting the evidentiary basis for many of the detentions was weak.

A few witnesses said those involved were from the GFAT because they had observed military vehicles involved in large operations driving in and out of GFAT bases in Djibo and Nassoumbou. On January 15, 2018 the Burkina Faso National Armed Forces announced that recent GFAT security operations in the north of the country led to the arrest and questioning of more than 200 individuals suspected of engaging in terrorist activity, of whom 33 were detained for further inquiry, while the rest were released.[80]

Human Rights Watch documented six such mass arrests which occurred during 2017 and early 2018.The abuse in detention described below occurred in the context of several of these mass arrests. Witnesses said the abuse was meted out by security force personnel during ad hoc interrogations in the first few days after detention and took place in army bases, villages and checkpoints. The abuse usually stopped when the detainees were handed over to government gendarmes, the witnesses said.

Human Rights Watch interviewed three health workers who provided medical care to men who had been detained in the mass arrests shortly after they were released from custody who described treating the cuts, bruises, hematomas and gashes numerous men had sustained during detention.

Three witnesses described the detention of some 15 men on January 29, 2018 shortly after an ambush by armed Islamists killed two policemen on the road between the villages of Baraboulé and Petegoli. Two of the detained men, one with a mental illness, died as a result of mistreatment meted out by both policemen and soldiers. One witness described the man’s injuries: “he had black and blue marks and coagulated blood all over his body; and his face was visibly swollen.”[81] Another witness said:

The ambush happened around 6:30 a.m. The police asked for army reinforcement then started arresting shepherds who were watching their animals or going to market. I saw the police and soldiers beating them, severely, with wood, rubber cords and gun butts near the ambush site and on the way to the Djibo police station They insulted and threatened to kill them. Many were bleeding from gashes on their heads, arms and backs. They didn’t eat or drink for two days. On around day four of their detention, they were taken out of the cell to have their photographs taken, but one detainee, who was mentally ill, didn’t understand what was being asked of him; he resisted holding up the paper for the police photo. The policemen set upon him until he fell down, and continued to beat and kick him. After seeing how bad off he was, the policemen took him to the clinic, but he died shortly thereafter. A second man, who had been detained near the ambush site in Petagoli, died in the cell…the prisoners yelled, ‘this man is sick…he’s going to die, he needs water!’ But a policeman said, ‘forget it, you’re all going to die here.’ The prisoner gave up his soul (died) an hour later.[82]

A villager described how soldiers detained and severely mistreated 11 men they had rounded up near a village in the Soum Province in early July 2017 shortly after an army vehicle in the area hit an explosive device, wounding several soldiers:

They rounded up all the men they found – young and very old – like they blamed the entire village. They ripped an old man’s boubou to blindfold them, then beat them without mercy – with wood, belts and batons – the beating continued in the vehicles. They were all released after questioning, and all needed medical attention – their boubous [a long flowing garment] were stained with blood. Some had gashes on the head and another on his arm…he kept blocking his children from being hit – and got struck again and again. We understand the need to question suspects, but some people are joining the Jihadists because of this mistreatment.[83]

A resident of Nassoumbou said in late December or early January 2018, soldiers based in Nassoumbou and whom he believed were with the GFAT, detained over 20 men, many while in the village or while watching their animals; a few were later sent to the high security prison in Ouagadougou. He had witnessed some of the arrests and later visited three of the men after they had been released. “The men were seriously beaten…including a 70-year-old and two others who were around 50 years old. The eldest could not even get up – I saw a large wound on his head. Another man, had about four welts on his back. They told me they had been accused of selling petrol and sugar to the Jihadists.”[84]

Human Rights Watch previously denounced the deaths of two other men after severe mistreatment during their detention by Burkinabè soldiers during a cross border operation into Mali on June 9, 2017.

Response from Military Authorities

The Head of Military Justice, Colonel Sita Sangar éin a March 23, 2018 interview with Human Rights Watch, noted the challenges posed by asymmetric warfare, when “your enemy does not conform to the laws of war and hides within the very population,” but insisted that “the Burkina Faso army is very conscious of the importance of respecting human rights and takes concrete measures to ensure respect for human rights law.” He said those measures include significant training, clear orders to protect human rights in all operations, and the presence of provost marshals, exercised by gendarmes, in operations.[85] He further noted that, “Our position is clear – there should be no impunity for abuses by our forces. If there are credible allegations which come to our attention, we will investigate.”

On May 9, 2018, Human Rights Watch sent the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Justice a letter detailing the major findings and recommendation contained in this report. On May 15, 2018, Human Rights Watch received the government’s response, from Burkina Faso’s Minister of Defense and Veterans affairs, Jean-Claude Bouda. (See appendix 1 and 2.)  

In the letter, Mr. Bouda noted his government’s commitment to respecting human rights, and ensuring that all military personnel are trained in international humanitarian law, both as part of their training, and in advance of military operations.

Further, Mr. Bouda noted his agreement with and commitment to implementing the key recommendations contained in Human Rights Watch’s letter, “in particular, the government undertakes to conduct inquiries into all the cases of abuse cited which had not previously been brought to its attention.” 

The letter states that the government is already aware of some allegations against the civilian population committed during the course of ongoing anti-terrorist operations in northern Burkina Faso, and that these allegations have given rise to “immediate action.” The letter notes one such case, which took place in Bahn, in Nord Region, which has led to both disciplinary action and a criminal case in front of the military tribunal of Ouagadougou.  

Human Rights Watch welcomes these commitments and urges the government to faithfully follow through on them.

Importance of Provost Marshals

Security sources, diplomats and justice ministry officials emphasized the essential role of provost marshals — responsible for ensuring discipline and the rights of detainees during all military operations –in reducing allegations of abuses and ensuring respect for detainees.

One justice official noted, “It is they – the provosts — who know the law, who understand the basis of a detention, and who ensure the well-being of the detained. They should be part and parcel of all operations.”[86]

Colonel Sita Sangaré said provost marshals are envisioned to be in all operations, adding that they do not always accompany soldiers into the theaters of operation, but rather, at times, respond from “the GFAT Command centers in Dori and Ouahigouya, when solicited by commanders.” He noted there were plans to increase their presence in ongoing GFAT operations.

Several security analysts and diplomats told Human Rights Watch they were concerned about both the lack of provosts in day to day operations and the serious allegations about the conduct of some gendarmes. One security source questioned: “Sure, provosts are important but how do we deal with the fact that the very security core - gendarmes – who exercise that role, are themselves implicated in some exactions?”[87]


Justice for Victims of Crimes Related to Armed Islamist Attacks and Counter Terrorism Operations

The jihadists are running around killing people; some soldiers are detaining and killing people outside of the law; honestly, they’re all acting like they’ll never be held accountable. This is why justice, for everyone, is so important.
 —Village elder from Nassoumbou, March 2018.

Victims of violence by both the armed Islamists and security forces have complained about the lack of, or slow pace of investigations into cases since 2016. Family members of victims of abuses by armed Islamists had received little information aboutinvestigations into their loved ones’ killings and were not sure if suspects detained after the killings were being investigated for human rights abuses or crimes against the state.

Community leaders and families of victims of alleged state sponsored violence complained about what they perceived to be a one-sided response 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 either the security forces or the judiciary.[88]

Several family members said gendarmes had refused to visit the crime scene or even file a report after the body of their family member was found. Village elders sited a few cases where bodies of those believed to have been executed by the security forces were left to decompose outside for days without triggering any official response.

An elder from Djibo spoke of the importance of impartial justice: “Everyone who lost a brother or father or husband deserves justice whether they were killed by the jihadists or the army. The lack of justice is a principal cause of radicalization and recruitment. The state has to restore confidence among the population and to do that, they have to be fair and impartial in everything including justice.”[89]

All suspects implicated in terrorism-related offenses are transferred to Ouagadougou’s High Security Prison (La Prison de Haute Securite), and all of their cases are investigated and adjudicated by the Ouagadougou-based Specialized Judicial Unit Against Crime and Terrorism (“Pole Judiciare Specialise dans la Repression des Actes de Terrorisme.)[90] The Specialized Unit was created by a December 2017 law and has dedicated judges, staff and a trial chamber. Numerous terrorism related crimes were already under investigation before the 2017 creation of the unit.[91]

Under Burkinabè law, terrorist infractions include attacks against civil aviation, sea vessels, and public transportation; attacks against individuals enjoying international protection, including diplomats; the taking of hostages; bombings; and association with criminal organizations.[92]

A Ministry of Justice official told Human Rights Watch that, as of March 23, 2018, some 200 suspects accused of terrorism-related offenses including those which have killed civilians, were being held at the high security prison and were under investigation by the special unit, but that no single judgment had yet taken place.[93]

None the victims of alleged abuse by state actors or their families interviewed had filed judicial complaints which, in the French system, could have triggered the opening of a criminal investigation by the local prosecutor. They had not done so both because they felt it was futile and because they feared reprisal. “No one is even courageous enough to file a case – this would be like asking for your own death,” noted one man.[94] A family member of the men from Damba allegedly killed by the army in late December 2017 said:

How could we possibly file a judicial complaint?….We are too afraid, we’ve already lost eight people from our village and don’t want to lose anyone else. Our people are gone – forever - we have left it up to God.[95]

Due Process Concern: Lack of Access to Lawyers

If the suspects had lawyers, half of these cases would be dropped by the investigative judges for lack of evidence.
Justice Sector Professional, Ouagadougou, February 2018

Human rights defenders and family members of men detained for terrorism related cases said very few of them had legal representation. Scores of suspects had been detained for months and, in some cases, over a year, with no access to a lawyer. A civil society member who had worked with the detained said:

The evidentiary basis for many of these detentions is thin especially when multiple family members or villagers are picked up in large sweeps. Way too many detainees are being sent 200 miles away from family on the basis of an arrest warrant with next to no information in their files. In other cases, detainees have signed papers they couldn’t even read; and yet next to none of them have lawyers to be able to make these points and secure their release.[96]

A few human rights defenders said they had asked several lawyers to represent the detained, but that they had refused for fear of reprisal. They said the Ouagadougou attacks had generated considerable anger toward suspects detained in northern Burkina Faso, who were collectively blamed for the general climate of insecurity in the country. One noted, “When you see how vitriolic, how hateful the social media posts are about people from the north you can see why so few lawyers have stepped forward to represent the detained.”[97]

Justice officials and international observers familiar with the anti-terrorism unit said that in recent months it has indeed released over 20 people whose cases were found to lack merit. Justice officials did however acknowledge the slow pace of investigations.

Slow Pace of Justice

Two ministry of justice officials and a member of the diplomatic community working in the justice sector identified several reasons why investigations within the anti-terrorism cell were moving slowly. First, was the complicated nature of the crimes which often involve international jurisdictions and occur in inaccessible and dangerous places. Second, was the insufficient level of detail contained in the suspect files they receive from the arresting law enforcement personnel (notably in the Sahel region) which significantly increases the investigative burden of the Bamako-based cell. Third was the dynamic of mass arrests by the army on the basis of limited suspicion, which significantly increased the workload of the Ouagadougou judicial authorities. Fourth was the urgent need for more personnel working within the cell, which at present only has two dedicated investigative judges. And Fifth, was the slow response to judicial inquiries relevant to their investigations on the part of regional governments.[98]

Judicial and security sources noted the urgent need for more training and resources for field-based police and gendarmes so as to ensure better preliminary investigations and to ensure the over-burdened Bamako based cell isn’t being sent cases which either lack merit or pertain to individuals accused of common crimes not within their jurisdiction. Lastly, a few judicial professionals noted the importance of better security for personnel working with the anti-terrorism judicial unit.[99]


International Support to Burkina Faso’s Security Forces

In the context of bilateral cooperation, France has for several decades supported the Burkinabè security forces by providing both material support and training. At writing, France and Burkina Faso’s structural defense cooperation consists mainly of officer training at the Superior Institute of Logistics of Ouagadougou, training and deployment support for G5 Sahel forces, human resources management, and logistical, material, and technical support for the Burkina Faso Air Force.[100] [101]Support to the Burkinabè Air Force also includes pilot training, and the delivery of ULM TETRA planes as well as support for the operation and use of the aircrafts. [102]

Additionally, since 2017, France has helped strengthen the Burkinabè battalion of the G5 Sahel joint forces by, in coordination with Burkinabe military authorities, establishing an operational readiness training center in Dori, where personnel from the Burkinabè G5 battalion are trained. Since April 2018, at the request of the Burkinabè High Command, this training includes a module for international humanitarian law, carried out by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), in parallel with the military training modules.[103]

French military forces from Operation Barkhane, an ongoing antiterrorism operation in the Sahel region which began in 2014, have engaged in several joint military operations with forces from Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, including with forces from the GFAT, around their common borders.[104],[105]

France has also provided training and logistical support to Burkinabè gendarmes,[106] including to the USIGN, which is modeled after France’s National Gendarmerie Intervention Group (GIGN).[107] In October 2017, France donated 15 protective shields to the USIGN and the French ambassador to Burkina Faso confirmed the arrival of French gendarmes and police[108] to train the USIGN and Multipurpose Intervention Unit of the National Police (UIPPN) in Ouagadougou.[109] Training courses for these two intervention units, many of which have been running since 2014, include instruction on the legal frameworks for the use of force.[110]

The United States has provided more than $54 million in security assistance to Burkina Faso since 2012. A US official noted that, “The United States and Burkina Faso engage in a number of military, law enforcement, and justice sector training, equipping, and professional education programs, including in counterterrorism, peacekeeping, and humanitarian assistance.”[111] Programs have included training to the military, law enforcement and justice sectors; the provision of personal protective, communications, and medical equipment; and professional education, including in counterterrorism and peacekeeping.[112] 

Burkina Faso is a partner in the Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance program for peacekeeping and is a member of the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, the latter of which is dedicated to including Burkina Faso’s capabilities to respond to terrorist attacks.[113]

The Department of Defense (DoD) has provided training, equipment, and other assistance to subordinate Burkinabè security force units that have operated under the command and control of the GFAT, however not to the GFAT directly.[114] In April 2014, US forces trained and provided body armor, uniforms, and vehicles to the counterterrorism company of the 25th regiment of the parachutist commando,[115] a key contributor of soldiers to the GFAT.[116] US support to the 25th regiment continued in 2016.[117]

Burkinabè security forces have for several years participated in the U.S. Africa Command’s annual multi-nation training exercise, known as Operation Flintlock. In 2017, Burkina Faso hosted the operation.[118]

The US also works with civilian law enforcement actors across the country, focusing this year on protecting soft targets and working with investigators from the National Police and Gendarmerie assigned to Burkina Faso’s special judicial police focused on terrorism cases.[119]

A Department of Defense spokesperson noted, that “prior to receiving Department of Defense-funded training, equipment, or other assistance, foreign security forces are vetted for past involvement in human rights violations…The Department of Defense Leahy law prohibits the Department of Defense from providing any training, equipment, or other assistance to a unit of a foreign security force if the Department of Defense has credible information that the unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.”[120]

In May 2017, the European Union and the Burkinabè Minister of Security formally announced a partnership on the Project to Support the Reinforcement of Interior Security (PARSIB). The project, carried out by the Belgian Cooperation with EU funding, provides training to improve management of national intelligence and crisis response and provides technical assistance in support of a larger plan for security sector reform.  A key component of the program is the training, carried out by members of the Belgian Federal Police, of counterterrorism units called Anti-Banditry and Terrorism Brigades (ABTs). These units are equally staffed by gendarmes and police and are primarily stationed in the greater Ouagadougou area.[121] All the intervention units are coordinated by the Burkinabè Unified Center on Crisis Management (CUGC), a security, intervention and antiterrorism organization within the cabinet of the Minister of Security.[122]

Germany has also pledged to support the training of Burkina Faso’s security forces. Following the August 2017 attack on the Aziz Istanbul Café in Ouagadougou, then-Parliamentary States Secretary in the Ministry of Defense, Ralf Brauksiepe confirmed that Germany would expand its involvement in the European Union Training Mission (EUTM) in Mali[123] to include the training of soldiers from Burkina Faso.[124] 

In June 2017, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger ramped up the G5 Sahel multinational counterterrorism military force. First established in 2014, the G5 Sahel was endorsed by the African Union and welcomed by the UN Security Council in 2017. The G5 Sahel has received considerable funding pledges from the international community including from the EU, which pledged €50 million (approximately US$59 million), the US, which pledged $60 million, and Saudi Arabia, which pledged €100 million (approximately US$119 million) in support of G5-Sahel operations.[125] The EU doubled its contribution to G5 Sahel from €50 million to €100 million following a February 2018 donor conference in Brussels.[126]



To the Government of Burkina Faso

  • Ensure that everyone taken into custody by government security forces is treated humanely, is promptly brought before a judicial authority to ensure the legality of their detention and is able to contact their families.
  • During any operations involving military personnel, ensure the inclusion of military police – or those exercising the provost marshal function – mandated to monitor and respond to any abuse and liaise with the relevant judicial authorities.
  • Investigate and prosecute, in accordance with international fair trial standards, members of the security forces responsible for serious human rights violations, regardless of position or rank, including commanding officers.
  • Send on administrative leave pending investigations security force personnel credibly implicated in abuses.
  • Provide assistance to local authorities who have inadequate capacity to carry out credible, impartial, and independent investigations and prosecutions. Consider seeking international assistance to the extent necessary to meet this goal.
  • Ensure all persons accused of criminal offenses have access to adequate legal representation regardless of their means, and that they have access to prompt and fair trials as required under international law.
  • Improve conditions in detention centers, in particular by ensuring adequate nutrition, sanitation, and medical care.
  • Increase the number of judicial personnel working within the Specialized Judicial Unit Against Crime and Terrorism.  
  • Take all necessary steps to ensure the safety and adequate security of all members of the judiciary working within the Specialized Judicial Unit Against Crime and Terrorism.

To Armed Islamist Groups Operating in Burkina Faso

  • Cease all extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, and other serious human rights abuses, as well as threats of violence against community members.
  • Immediately cease all attacks and threats against schools, students, teachers, professors and education personnel. Facilitate impartial and unhindered access to organizations providing humanitarian assistance.

To the National Human Rights Commission of Burkina Faso

  • Conduct impartial, public investigations into alleged human rights abuses by security force personnel and armed Islamist groups.
  • Investigate alleged human rights violations associated with the detention of people suspected of links to armed Islamist groups, including scrutiny of detention conditions and respect for fair trial rights.

To Burkina Faso’s International Partners


  • Support efforts to provide legal counsel for the indigent in criminal cases.
  • Support human rights training for Burkina Faso security forces involved in counterterrorism operations.
  • Refrain from funding Burkina Faso Security Forces units that are credibly found to abuse human rights and make resumption of funding to such units contingent on steps to remediate, address the abuses, and hold those responsible to account.


To the Government of the United States

  • Fully implement the Leahy Law, which prohibits the provision of military assistance to any foreign security force unit if there is credible evidence that such a unit has committed gross human rights violations, and suspend assistance to the security force units implicated in abuse until the Burkinabè government takes steps to remediate, address the abuses, and hold those responsible to account.



This report was researched and written by Corinne Dufka, Associate Director in the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. Research assistance was provided by Morgan Hollie, Africa Division associate. The report was reviewed and edited by Chris Albin-Lackey, senior legal adviser; Babatunde Olugboji, deputy program director; and Zama Cousen-Neff, Executive Director of the Children’s Rights Division. Production assistance was provided by José Martinez, senior coordinator; and Fitzroy Hepkins, administrative manager.

Human Rights Watch thanks the many witnesses and victims who provided testimony for this report, often at great personal risk, as well as the organizations and individuals who connected us to them. We are also grateful to the government officials, humanitarian workers, civil society activists, community leaders and diplomats who shared their experiences and views with us. Given security considerations, we cannot thank them here by name, but their support and courage greatly facilitated our research.



[1] Permanent Mission of Burkina Faso to the United Nations, “Déclaration de S.E.M. Alpha Barry, Ministre des Affaires Etrangères, la Coopération et des Burkinabè de l'extérieur du Burkina Faso au Briefing du Conseil de Sécurité des Nations Unies sur la paix et la sécurité en Afrique,” New York, October 30, 2017, https://www.un.int/burkinafaso/statements_speeches/d%C3%A9claration-de-s... (accessed April 23, 2018).

[2] International Crisis Group, “The Social Roots of Jihadist Violence in Burkina Faso’s North,” https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/west-africa/burkina-faso/254-social-r... (accessed April 23, 2018).

[3] “Comment est né Ansaroul Islam, premier groupe djihadiste de l’Histoire du Burkina Faso,” Le Monde, April 11, 2017, http://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2017/04/11/comment-est-ne-ansaroul... (accessed May 2, 2018).

[4] “Islamist Insurgency in Burkina Faso: A Profile of Malam Ibrahim Dicko,” Aberfoyle International Security, April 30, 2017, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3908 (accessed April 23, 2018).

[5] “Analysis: Jihadist attacks on the rise in northern Burkina Faso,” Long War Journal, October 2, 2017, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2017/10/analysis-jihadist-attack... (accessed April 13, 2018).

[6] “Al Qaeda branch in Mali claims Burkina Faso attacks,” Threat Matrix, Long War Journal, March 3, 2018, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2018/03/al-qaeda-branch-in-mali-... (accessed April 13, 2018).

[8] United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Humanitarian Response, “Plan d’Urgence et de Résilience,” April 2018, https://www.humanitarianresponse.info/sites/www.humanitarianresponse.inf... (accessed April 16, 2018), p. 17.

[9] “Burkina: 5000 déplacés dans le Nord (CICR),” Africatime, March 27, 2018, http://fr.africatime.com/gambie/articles/burkina-5000-deplaces-dans-le-n... (accessed May 3, 2018).

[10] UNHCR, “Operational Update, Burkina Faso December 2017-February 2018,” http://reporting.unhcr.org/sites/default/files/UNHCR%20Operational%20Upd... (accessed May 3, 2018).


[11] Human Rights Watch interview with witnesses, Ouagadougou, March 22,2018.

[12] “Jihadists abduct Burkina teacher ‘for speaking French’,” Expatica, April 17, 2018, https://www.expatica.com/fr/news/country-news/Burkina-attack-kidnapping_... (accessed May 2, 2018)

[13] Human Rights Watch interview with witness, Koutougou, April 16, 2018.

[14] Human Rights Watch interview with witnesses, Ouagadougou, March 21, 2018.

[15] Human Rights Watch interview with witnesses, Ouagadougou, March 21, 2018.

[16] Human Rights Watch interview with witnesses, Ouagadougou, March 21, 2018.

[17] Human Rights Watch interview with witnesses, Ouagadougou, March 21, 2018.

[18] “Conseiller de Soboulé tue a Titao: ‘Les assassains etaient deux, a moto, cagoules et en tenue militaire’,” NetAfrique, February 5, 2017, http://netafrique.net/conseiller-de-Soboulé-tue-a-titao-les-assassins-etaient-deux-a-moto-cagoules-et-en-tenue-militaire-correspondant/ (accessed May 2, 2018).

[19] Human Rights Watch interview with witnesses, Ouagadougou, March 21, 2018

[20] Human Rights Watch interview with witness, Ouagadougou, February 21, 2018.

[21] Human Rights Watch interview with witness, Ouagadougou, March 21, 2018.

[22] In French : La Direction Générale des Eaux et Forêts. A paramilitary force responsible for implementing national wildlife policy, protecting natural resources and conducting military training for forestry agents.

[23] Human Rights Watch interview with witnesses, Ouagadougou, March 22,2018.

[24] Human Rights Watch interview with representative of the National Teachers Union, Ouagadougou, March 18, 2018, and with teacher from Oudalan Province, March 18, 2018.

[25] “Fermeture des classes au Sahel et au Nord: Les enseignants et les élèves devraient retourner bientôt en classe,” LeFaso.net, April 20, 2018, http://lefaso.net/spip.php?article83032 (accessed April 23, 2018).

[26] Human Rights Watch interview with representative of the National Teachers Union, Ouagadougou, March 18, 2018, and with teacher from Oudalan Province, March 18, 2018

[27] Ministry of the Economy, Finances, and Development, National Institute for Statistics and Demography (INSD), “Annuaire Statistique 2014,” December 2015, http://www.insd.bf/n/contenu/pub_periodiques/annuaires_stat/Annuaires_st... (accessed April 26, 2018) p.91.

[28] Human Rights Watch interviews with security analysts, Ouagadougou, February 9, 2018, February 21, March 17, 2018.

[29] “Burkina Faso: le groupe jihadiste EIGS revendique le rapt d’un enseignant,” RFI Afrique, April 18, 2018, http://www.rfi.fr/afrique/20180418-burkina-faso-le-groupe-jihadiste-eigs... (accessed May 10, 2018).

[30] “Jihadists abduct Burkina teacher ‘for speaking French’,” Expatica, April 17, 2018, https://www.expatica.com/fr/news/country-news/Burkina-attack-kidnapping_... (accessed April 23, 2018).

[31] Human Rights Watch phone interview, Bourou, April 17 2018.

[32] “Burkina Faso teachers return to school, seek support, after jihadist threats,” Reuters, April 26, 2017, https://af.reuters.com/article/africaTech/idAFKBN17S1AA-OZATP (accessed April 23, 2018).

[33] Human Rights Watch interview with witness, Ouagadougou, March 21, 2018.

[35] Human Rights Watch phone interview with witness, Ouagadougou, April, 26, 2018.

[36] Human Rights Watch interview with Ministry of Education official from the Sahel Region, Ouagadougou, March 18, 2018.

[37] Human Rights Watch interview with witness, Ouagadougou, March 21, 2018.

[38] Human Rights Watch interview with representative from the National Teachers Union, Ouagadougou, March 18, 2018.

[39] Human Rights Watch interview with local teacher, Ouagadougou, March 20, 2018.

[40] “Fermeture des classes au Sahel et au Nord: Les enseignants et les élèves devraient retourner bientôt en classe,” LeFaso.net, April 20, 2018, http://lefaso.net/spip.php?article83032 (accessed April 23, 2018)


[41] Human Rights Watch interview with witness, Ouagadougou, March 21, 2018.

[42] Human Rights Watch interview with witness, Ouagadougou, March 23, 2018.

[43] “Al Qaeda affiliate claims responsibility for Burkina Faso attacks,” Reuters, March 3, 2018m https://www.reuters.com/article/us-burkina-security/al-qaeda-affiliate-c... (accessed April 23, 2018).

[44] In French : Les Forces Armées Nationales, Le Gendarmerie Nationale, La Police Nationale du Burkina Faso, Groupement des Forces Anti-Terroristes (GFAT), L’Unité Spéciale d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale (l’USIGN).

[45] Decret no. 2013-121/PRES/PM/MDNAC du 12 mars portant modification du decret no. 2012-925/PRES/PM/MDNAC du 30 novembre 2012 portant creation d’unGroupement de Forces Antiterroriste. JO No. 34 du 22 Aout, 2013, President du Conseil des Ministres, http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:http://www.legiburk... (accessed April 13, 2018).

[46] “Nassoumbou : récit d’un témoin depuis sa fenêtre,” Sidwaya, December 18, 2016, http://www.sidwaya.bf/m-14481-nassoumbou-recit-d-un-temoin-depuis-sa-fen... (accessed April 13, 2018).

[47] “Soum : Le groupement des forces antiterroristes de Koutougou victimes d’une attaque ce 31 octobre 2017,” Infowkat, October 31, 2017, https://infowakat.net/soum-groupement-forces-antiterroristes-de-koutougo... (accessed April 13, 2018).

[48] Human Rights Watch interview with security experts, Ouagadougou, February 19, 2018; March 22, 2018; March 23, 2018.

[49] Gendarmerie Nationale du Burkina Faso, “Présentation,” undated, http://gendarmerienationale.bf/7-2/ (accessed April 12, 2018).

[50] “Unité Spéciale d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale: Une unité d’Elite aux grandes ambitions avec peu de moyens,” LePays, February 11, 2016, http://lepays.bf/unite-speciale-dintervention-de-la-gendarmerie-national... (accessed April 10, 2018).

[51] Human Rights Watch interview with diplomat, Ouagadougou, February 20, 2018.

[52] Human Rights Watch interview with humanitarian workers, February 21, 2018.

[53] Human Rights Watch interview with witnesses, Ouagadougou, March 22, 2018.

[54] “Communique de Presse,” National Armed Forces of Burkina Faso press release, January 15, 2018, https://drive.google.com/file/d/11z5RnTl3KHyvqK1XrnOMFIT_m0l-qSKd/view (accessed May 2, 2018).

[55] Human Rights Watch interview with security experts, Ouagadougou, February 20, 2018.

[56] Human Rights Watch interview with witness, Ouagadougou, February 17, 2018.

[57] Human Rights Watch interview with village elder, Ouagadougou, March 17, 2018.

[58] Human Rights Watch interview with village chief, Ouagadougou, February 16, 2018.

[59] Human Rights Watch interview with victim, Ouagadougou, March 20, 2018.

[60] Human Rights Watch interviews with two witnesses and a security source, Ouagadougou, March 20, 2017; March 22, 2017; and by telephone, April 28, 2017.

[61] Human Rights Watch interview with witness, Ouagadougou, March 20, 2018.

[62] Human Rights Watch interview with witness, Ouagadougou, February 17, 2018.

[63] Human Rights Watch interviews with security sources, Ouagadougou, February 17, 2018 and March 22, 2018; and members of the diplomatic community, Ouagadougou, February 20, 2018 and March 18, 2018.

[64] Human Rights Watch interview with witness, Ouagadougou, February 17, 2018.

[65] Human Rights Watch interview with witness, Ouagadougou, February 21, 2018.

[66] Human Rights Watch interview with witness, Ouagadougou, February 17, 2018.

[67] Human Rights Watch phone interview with witness, April 28, 2018.

[68] Human Rights Watch interviews with security sources, Ouagadougou, February 17, 2018 and March 22, 2018; member of the diplomatic community, Ouagadougou, February 20, 2018; and community leaders, Ouagadougou, March 17, 2018.

[69] Human Rights Watch interview with witness, Ouagadougou, February 17, 2018.

[70] Human Rights Watch interview with witness, Ouagadougou, March 22, 2018.

[71] Human Rights Watch interview with witness, Ouagadougou, March 22, 2018.

[72] Human Rights Watch interview with witness, Ouagadougou, February 17, 2018.

[73] Human Rights Watch interview with witness, Ouagadougou, February 17, 2018.

[74] Human Rights Watch interview with witness, Ouagadougou, March 22, 2018.

[75] Human Rights Watch interview with security analyst, Ouagadougou, March 19, 2018.

[76] Human Rights Watch interview with witnesses, Ouagadougou, February 17, 2018.

[77] Human Rights Watch interview with community leader, April 28, 2018.

[78] “Avocet’s convoy in Burkina Faso strikes landmine, killing two,” Reuters, September 27, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-avocet-attack/avocets-convoy-in-burki... (May 3, 2018);“Touronata (Nord Burkina): trois personnes abattues par des hommes armés non identifiés, ”Net Afrique, September 28, 2017, http://netafrique.net/touronata-nord-burkina-trois-personnes-abattues-pa... (accessed May 3, 2018).

[79] Human Rights Watch interviews with Tuareg rights group, Bamako February 6, 2018 and February 18, 2018, and email exchange December 9, 2017.

[80] “Communique de Presse,” National Armed Forces of Burkina Faso press release, January 15, 2018, https://drive.google.com/file/d/11z5RnTl3KHyvqK1XrnOMFIT_m0l-qSKd/view (accessed May 2, 2018).

[81] Human Rights Watch interview with witnesses, Ouagadougou, February 17, 2018.

[82] Human Rights Watch interview with victim, Ouagadougou, March 19, 2018.

[83] Human Rights Watch interview with witnesses, Ouagadougou, March 22, 2018.

[84] Human Rights Watch interview with witnesses, Ouagadougou, March 22, 2018.

[85] Human Rights Watch interview with Director of Military Justice, Colonel Sita Sangaré, Ouagadougou, March 23, 2018.

[86] Human Rights Watch interview with justice official, Ouagadougou, March 23, 2018.

[87] Human Rights Watch interview with security analyst, Ouagadougou, February 20, 2018.

[88] Human Rights Watch interview with victims, Ouagadougou, February and March 2018.

[89] Human Rights Watch interview with village elder, Ouagadougou, February 17, 2018.

[90] Human Rights Watch interviews with Ministry of Justice officials, Ouagadougou, March 22 and March 23, 2017.

[91] Loi Portant création, organisation et fonctionnement d’un pôle judiciaire spécialisé dans la répression des actes de terrorisme, L’Assemblée Nationale, No. 006-2017/AN, 2017, http://www.justice.gov.bf/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/loi-006-portant-pol... (accessed April 23, 2018).

[92] Loi no. 006-2017/AN Portant création, organisation et fonctionnement d’un pôle judiciaire spécialise dans la répression des actes de terrorisme, LAassemblée Nationale, http://www.justice.gov.bf/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/loi-006-portant-pol... (accessed May 3, 2018). The 2017 statute only lists “terrorist infractions as defined under present law” and “the financing of terrorism” as crimes to be investigated by the Speciallized Judicial Unit Against Crime and Terrorism. However, Loi no. 084-2015, which modifies a December 2009 law authorizing the repression of terrorism in Burkina Faso, lists the infractions which constitute terrorism under Burkinabè law. Loi no. 084-2015/CNT, Portant modification de la loi no.060-2009/AN du 17 Decembre 2009, portant represssion d’actes de terrorisme au Burkina Faso, La conseil national de la transition, http://apprendre-plus.shost.ca/documents/lois/loi_084.pdf (accessed May 3, 2018)

[93] Human Rights Watch interview with Ministry of Justice official, Ouagadougou, March 23, 2018.

[94] Human Rights Watch interview with victims, Ouagadougou, February 21, 2018.

[95] Human Rights Watch interview with victims, Ouagadougou, March 30, 2018.

[96] Human Rights Watch interview with civil society members, Ouagadougou, March 17, 2018.

[97] Human Rights Watch interview with human rights defenders, Ouagadougou, March 19, 2018.

[98] Human Rights Watch interview with Ministry of justice officials, Ouagadougou, March 22 and March 23, 2018; and with member of diplomatic community, Ouagadougou, February 20, 2018.

[99]Human Rights Watch interviews with judicial and security force officials, Ouagadougou, February 17, and March 23, 2018.

[100] French Embassy to Burkina Faso in Ouagadougou, “Mission de coopération de défense,” September 27, 2017, https://bf.ambafrance.org/Mission-de-Cooperation-de-Defense (accessed May 1, 2018).

[101] Human Rights Watch email correspondence with French cooperation source, Ouagadougou, May 15, 2018.

[102] Human Rights Watch email correspondence with French cooperation source, Ouagadougou, May 15, 2018.

[103] Human Rights Watch email correspondence with French cooperation source, Ouagadougou, May 15, 2018.

[104] Ministry of Defense and Former Combatants of Burkina Faso, “Partenariat pour lutter contre les Groupes Armé Terroristes,” November 11, 2015, http://www.defense.gov.bf/index.php/2014-09-18-15-34-51/du-commandement/... (accessed May 1, 2018).

[105] Ministry of the Army of France, “Barkhane: Appuyer les forces partenaires dans la sécurisation de leurs frontières,” March 17, 2016, https://www.defense.gouv.fr/operations/operations/sahel/actualites/barkh... (accessed May 4, 2018).

[106] “Unités d’élites : La France vole au secours du Burkina Faso,” Burkina 24, October 12, 2017, https://burkina24.com/2017/10/12/unites-delite-la-france-vole-au-secours...(accessed May 1, 2018).

[107] Ministry of the Interior of France, “Quelques gendarmeries du monde,” January 30, 2018, https://www.interieur.gouv.fr/Actualites/Dossiers/Ces-gendarmes-venus-d-...(accessed April 23, 2018).

[108] “Sécurité : des balistiques pour la gendarmerie et la police,” Faso Revue, October 13, 2017, https://kelgueka.wordpress.com/tag/usign/ (accessed May 2, 2018).

[109] “Unités d’élite : La France vole au secours du Burkina, ” Faso 24, October 15, 2017, http://faso24.com/news/unites-delite-la-france-vole-au-secours-du-burkina/ (accessed May 2, 2018).

[110] Human Rights Watch email correspondence with French Cooperation course, Ouagadougou, May 15, 2018.

[111] Human Rights Watch email correspondence with US Official, Washington D.C., May 1, 2018.

[112] Ibid.

[113] Human Rights Watch email correspondence with US Official, Washington D.C., May 1, 2018.

[114] Human Rights Watch email correspondence with Department of Defense Spokesperson, May 5, 2018.

[115] United States Africa Command, “Burkina Faso Counter Terrorism Company receives training and equipment,” May 30, 2014, http://www.africom.mil/media-room/article/23085/burkina-faso-counter-ter...(accessed May 1, 2018).

[116] “Lutte contre le terrorisme : Offensive communicationnelle ou les lignes bougent-elles vraiment au Nord ? » Le Faso, January 18, 2018, http://lefaso.net/spip.php?article81488 (accessed May 1, 2018).

[117] “Contre le terrorisme : Tulinabo Mushingi expose ses ‘trois D’ chez Salif Diallo, ” Burkina 24, February 3, 2016, https://burkina24.com/2016/02/03/contre-le-terrorisme-tulinabo-mushingi-...(accessed May 1, 2018). And https://burkina24.com/2016/09/09/lutte-anti-terroriste-la-premiere-regio...

[118] United States Army, “Flintlock 2017 opens in Burkina Faso,” March 1, 2017, https://www.army.mil/article/183404/flintlock_2017_opens_in_burkina_faso (accessed May 4, 2018).

[119] Human Rights Watch email correspondence with US Official, Washington, D.C., May 1, 2018.

[120] The US Department of Defense’s legislative authority that permits the capacity building of such foreign security forces requires training on human rights and the law of armed conflict. Human Rights Watch email exchange with US Department of Defense Spokesperson, May 5, 2018.

[121] Human Rights Watch email correspondence with security source, Ouagadougou, April 24, 2018 and May 14, 2018.

[122] Delegation of the European Union to Burkina Faso, “Projet PARSIB: ‘La Sécurité pour le développement du Burkina Faso’,” July 21, 2017,https://eeas.europa.eu/delegations/burkina-faso/30224/projet-parsib-%C2%AB-la-s%C3%A9curit%C3%A9-pour-le-d%C3%A9veloppement-du-burkina-faso-%C2%BB_fr (accessed April 23, 2018). 

[123] The Press and Information Office of the Federal Government of Germany, “President of Burkina Faso Visits Berlin, Intensifying political relations,” March 21, 2017, https://www.bundesregierung.de/Content/EN/Artikel/2017/03_en/2017-03-21-...(accessed April 30, 2018).

[124] “Burkina Faso soldiers to get counter-terrorism training from Germany,” Africanews, August 18, 2017,http://www.africanews.com/2017/08/18/burkina-faso-soldiers-to-get-counte...(accessed April 30, 2018)

[125] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2018 (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2018), Mali chapter, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2018/country-chapters/mali.

[126] “EU doubles funds for G5 Sahel military anti-terror security force,” DW, February 23, 2018, http://www.dw.com/en/eu-doubles-funds-for-g5-sahel-military-anti-terror-...(accessed May 1, 2018).

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A fighter from Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stands next to debris of damaged buildings in Raqqa, Syria, September 25, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters/Rodi Said

Following US policy on Syria this past month has been a challenging exercise. In early April, the White House said the US military’s mission in Syria “to eradicate ISIS … is coming to a rapid end” and news reports indicated that Trump wanted troops out within six months. Then an alleged chemical attack occurred on Douma and the US, in partnership with France and the United Kingdom, carried out a series of military strikes in Syria on April 14. The strikes appear to have been a one-off response and the White House press secretary reiterated that the US mission in Syria “had not changed”: “The President has been clear that he wants US forces to come home as quickly as possible.”

Much commentary has focused on the impact of such a withdrawal on ISIS’ ability to regroup and the opportunity for Iran and Russia to expand their influence in Syria.

One aspect that has been largely omitted from the debate is how a US decision to pull out quickly from northeastern Syria, before any meaningful stabilization or plan for the future is in place, will affect life for people living in those areas. Case studies from Libya to Iraq do not bode well.

Regardless of how one views US intervention in Syria, the US has been the major international actor in northeastern Syria since 2014. It led an international coalition to fight ISIS, its soldiers have fought on the ground, and it has trained and armed local forces. In the process of battling ISIS, civilians have been killed and displaced, cities have been destroyed, and local groups have been empowered. It would be irresponsible for the US simply to walk away without seeking to address some of the key problems that remain–some of them a direct consequence of the fight against ISIS. The fact that ISIS’s fighting tactics caused much of the calamity does not mean that the decisions taken by the US-led coalition did not directly contribute to the situation.

Without proper planning or political negotiations with key local, regional and international actors, there is a real risk of renewed fighting or instability. On April 15, the White House press secretary stated that the US “expect[s] our regional allies and partners to take greater responsibility both militarily and financially for securing the region.” But other countries have not been lining up to pick up the slack and the UN’s relief effort in Syria remains severely underfunded, while local actors do not currently have the means to go at it alone. Does this mean that the US has to carry the burden alone or that the alternative is an ongoing US military presence? No, but it does mean that the US should ensure that it pulls out responsibly with an exit plan that addresses key issues.

Some of the issues are political and military. Chief among them is what steps the US will take to ensure that its two allies, namely Turkey and Kurdish forces in northern Syria, don’t fight each other to the detriment of the local population.

Other issues deal with legal and humanitarian concerns. One is the need to rebuild Raqqa and other areas retaken from ISIS: The US-led defeat of ISIS in places like Raqqa has left behind large-scale destruction and massive displacement. “Raqqa is no more, it has become a minefield,” a local resident told me in January when I visited the city. More than five months after ISIS has been pushed out, bodies are still rotting under the rubble and ISIS-laid mines continue to kill and maim. Local authorities do not have the capacity to deal with the destruction.

The US had recently promised $200 million to stabilize the area, but President Trump ordered the State Department to freeze these allocations. That suspension of aid could be self-defeating and more costly down the line. If the US wants long-term stability, it should act to ensure that the future of the Raqqa region and the civilians who live there is on the international agenda and that there is a plan to rebuild the city and ensure the return of the population.

Another issue is the foreign fighter detainees and their families who remain there. In their fight against ISIS, the US-backed Syria Democratic Forces have detained thousands of ISIS fighters, including hundreds of foreign men. The US-backed forces are also holding in displacement camps about 2,000 foreign women and children who are families of ISIS members. So far, none of these foreigners have been tried for criminal offenses, and several local Kurdish authorities told me that their own preference is to have the home countries of these foreigners take them back. US officials have tried to persuade countries to repatriate their citizen fighters and their families, but so far have had no takers among their allies.

What would happen to these foreigners – men, women and children – if the US pulls out without a plan to address their fate? The Syria Defense Forces might continue holding them but for how long? Already, the US is reportedly paying to improve detention facilities because the local authorities do not have the capacity. Meanwhile, the counterterrorism courts that local authorities set up cannot ensure the most basic requirements for fair trials as there is no role for defense lawyers and no appeal process.

As part of any pullout from northern Syria, the US should coordinate with local, regional and international actors to put in place a plan that responds to three key issues:

  1. Ensuring fair trials for alleged foreign ISIS fighters currently held in northern Syria either by building up local capacity or transferring them to their home countries where possible;
  2. Ensuring that prison facilities where convicted fighters serve their sentences meet international standards; and
  3. Repatriating where possible foreign nationals who have not committed any crimes. This last category would include the large number of children as well as many of the women currently in displacement camps.

Given the close nexus between the US military and the forces holding these individuals in custody, the United States has a strong interest in addressing these issues.

None of these issues lend themselves to easy answers. The answer is not for the US to go it alone in finding solutions. But if the US wants to cement the successes that the international coalition and their local partners have made in the fight against ISIS, it should make sure its exit plan addresses key post-ISIS challenges – otherwise there is a real likelihood that hard-fought gains will disintegrate quickly, with civilians carrying the burden.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Still image from a video provided to Human Rights Watch by a Sinai activist and captured on February 27, showing one closed gas station in al-Arish.

© 2018 Private

(Beirut) – The Egyptian government campaign against an affiliate of the Islamic State group in North Sinai has left up to 420,000 residents in four northeastern cities in urgent need of humanitarian aid since February 9, 2018, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should provide sufficient food for all residents and allow relief organizations such as the Egyptian Red Crescent to immediately provide resources to address local residents’ critical needs.

The military campaign against the Islamic State-affiliate in North Sinai has included imposing severe restrictions on the movement of people and goods in almost all of the governorate. Residents say they have experienced sharply diminished supplies of available food, medicine, cooking gas, and other essential commercial goods. The authorities have also banned the sale or use of gasoline for vehicle use in the area and cut telecommunication services for several days at a time. The government has cut water and electricity almost entirely in the most eastern areas of North Sinai, including Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed.

“A counterterrorism operation that imperils the flow of essential goods to hundreds of thousands of civilians is unlawful and unlikely to stem violence,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Egyptian army’s actions border on collective punishment and reveal the gap between what President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi claims to be doing on behalf of the citizenry and the shameful reality.”

The authorities prohibit independent reporting from the affected areas. Human Rights Watch interviewed two media workers living in North Sinai and 13 North Sinai residents or their relatives, including two activists, and reviewed footage, satellite images, official statements, media reports, and social media posts. Human Rights Watch concluded that if the current level of movement restrictions continues, it could lead to a wider humanitarian crisis in an already economically marginalized area that continues to suffer from ongoing military operations and home demolitions.

Still image from a video provided to Human Rights Watch by a Sinai activist and recorded on February 24, showing completely shut markets in al-Arish. Some food delivered more recently allowed markets to partially re-open. 

© 2018 Private

On February 9, the government announced the beginning of “Sinai 2018,” a new phase of the military campaign against Islamist militants that started in 2013. Most of the militants belong to an Islamic State affiliate that calls itself “Sinai Province.” The government plan came shortly before the end of a three-month deadline to the army from al-Sisi to “restore stability and security” in the region using “all brute force.” The deadline followed a November 24, 2017 attack by gunmen on a Sufi Mosque in North Sinai that killed 305 civilians. No group claimed responsibility, but survivors told prosecutors that the attackers brandished the Islamic State flag.

Witnesses interviewed in the affected areas said the operation has included closing roads, isolating cities from each other, and isolating the North Sinai governate from Egypt’s mainland, severely affecting the flow of goods from the mainland. The army has become the main source of food, giving some away and selling the rest. But local people said the quantities distributed do not meet existing needs. The crisis is most serious in the eastern cities of Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed where road closures are stricter, security restrictions have long existed, and private markets have near-completely run out of goods.

The army restrictions have also badly interrupted economic activities and sources of income for most residents. Since February 9, North Sinai’s Governor General Abd al-Fattah Harhor announced that all schools and universities in the governorate would be closed “until further notice.”

Human Rights Watch analysis of satellite imagery recorded after the start of operation “Sinai 2018” between February 22 and April 14, 2018, suggests local civilian road traffic has fallen dramatically as a consequence of the military operation in the area. This is consistent with witness testimony. The city of Sheikh Zuwayed in particular is effectively surrounded by a network of military bases and posts, and physical access appears highly restricted. All main roads entering and leaving the city are either physically closed or controlled with military checkpoints.

The absence of sufficient government measures to deal with the food crisis has stirred fears and led to incidents of violence. On March 9 in al-Arish, the army fired gunshots to disperse a crowd of residents who gathered to buy food, and resulting shrapnel wounded several, news reports said. In a separate incident in Rafah on March 20, soldiers’ gunfire killed two children and injured other people in a crowd that had gathered to obtain food, a source from Sheikh Zuwayed, who requested anonymity, told Human Rights Watch.

Officials have denied that there is a food crisis. On March 11, the army spokesperson said that the army continued to “provide food convoys and open several facilities to sell food and goods and other life necessities at discounted prices.” On March 30, Harhor said in a media statement that food “sufficient for six months” was delivered for sale to Sinai markets. But residents and activists said the situation is a humanitarian crisis and that traders should not be allowed to take advantage of the food shortage to increase profits. Human Rights Watch emailed the Egyptian Red Crescent on March 19 and April 15 to inquire whether it was carrying out humanitarian operations in the province but received no response.

The Egyptian army’s actions border on collective punishment and reveal the gap between what President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi claims to be doing on behalf of the citizenry and the shameful reality.

Sarah Leah Whitson

Middle East and North Africa director

The army’s failure to allow free movement and to allow sufficient food and other life essentials to reach residents violates rights enshrined in Egypt’s constitution and in its binding obligations under international treaties, especially the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. In particular, they amount to severe violations of the right to food, as defined in UN criteria that explain Article 11 of the ICESCR, including that the state needs to ensure the availability, accessibility, and adequacy of food. The military has also violated the right to food by destroying farmland that residents relied on for food, apparently using an indiscriminate, blanket security justification that farms hide militants, and without ensuring residents have alternative access to adequate food.

The right to food is strongly linked to other rights such as the rights to life, health, and education – and government obligations to ensure all have sufficient food is particularly important during times of crisis. The army actions in North Sinai most likely amounts to collective punishment of local residents and discrimination against the Bedouin community.

Human Rights Watch said in 2015 that the situation in Sinai could amount to a non-international armed conflict. In armed conflicts, under international humanitarian law, all parties must allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need.

The army has not announced a detailed justification for the near-complete isolation of the neighborhoods and the cities in the governorate, but army statements mentioned “cutting supplies” to armed groups and preventing militants from escaping to Egypt’s mainland. Under humanitarian law, all parties are requested to ensure the unimpeded flow of humanitarian aid and to ensure that civilians can flee unsafe zones.

“Instead of unleashing its usual propaganda machine to claim that criticizing Egyptian security forces undermines its counterterrorism efforts, the government should adhere to the law and stop punishing an entire community,” Whitson said.

Human Rights Watch interviewed two media workers who live in North Sinai; eight families who live in the cities of al-Arish, Sheikh Zuwayed, and Rafah; and two people who live outside Egypt but are in frequent contact with their families in Sinai. Three additional interviews focused on home demolitions that have likely intensified since February 9. Human Rights Watch is still investigating the issue of home demolitions. Human Rights Watch used pseudonyms for all of the interviewees, except one activist, for their protection. Human Rights Watch also reviewed scores of news articles, social media posts, satellite imagery, and videos, as well as footage broadcast on the official army spokesperson’s Facebook page.

Severe Restrictions

On January 19, President al-Sisi said “we made a decision to use extreme violence and truly brute force [in Sinai] … We haven’t started yet.”

Since February 9, the army spokesperson has issued frequent updates on military operations, sometimes with accompanying video footage, while the near-absolute government-imposed blackout on independent media in North Sinai since late 2013 has continued. On March 8, the spokesperson said at a news conference that the army had killed 105 militants and arrested 2,829 people in the month since the new operation began, but had released “a big number of those” after legal procedures. He said that 16 army officers and soldiers were killed and 19 injured in the same period. On March 19, the army said it had killed another 36 militants and arrested 345 suspects over five days, while 1 army officer and 3 soldiers were killed. The Interior Ministry said in a video statement on March 15 that the police and army had raided over 17,600 houses, 1,930 “shacks” and 760 farms and “destroyed those that proved to belong to terrorists.”

Witnesses and media reports indicate that the army and the police have most likely arbitrarily arrested hundreds of people, including women, but released some of them.

Ashraf Hefny, a local activist and coordinator of the People’s Committee in al-Arish, an independent gathering of family clan leaders and activists, told Human Rights Watch that residents were not warned about what he called a “siege.” Automobile service stations closed suddenly on the evening of February 8, and then “commodities began to disappear gradually and [then] quickly.”

Witnesses said that since February 9 the army has sent troops to “besiege” neighborhoods, conducting thorough house-by-house searches in each. Police forces are also involved, mainly in al-Arish. The witnesses said that security forces seized all mobile phones, and sometimes laptops, computers, and other electronic devices, and did not return them.

Human Rights Watch analyzed a detailed time series of satellite imagery recorded between 2016 and 2018 and identified an extensive network of security architecture constructed by the Egyptian army in the Northern Sinai governorate.

Security Analysis © 2018 Human Rights Watch

Road Data: 2018 OSM

This network includes dozens of military bases, observation posts, road checkpoints, heavy artillery batteries and munition depots, as well as hundreds of kilometers of earthen berms and security trenches.

These security structures are located along primary and secondary roads surrounding main cities and towns in the governorate, with the heaviest concentration in the east between Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed. The latter is completely surrounded by military posts.

The People’s Committee in al-Arish criticized al-Sisi’s statement on January 20 and said in a statement posted on its Facebook page that, “Sinai residents are threatened by the head of state,” and that the residents lived an “almost a non-existent life … Water doesn’t meet minimal needs and [they are] without electricity. North Sinai cities are dark most of the time.”

A local political activist said that “even the governor has no power.” Instead, he said, “the Defense Ministry and those who represent it are the only decision makers.” He said that the situation required aid organizations to intervene.

The North Sinai governorate has suffered from state marginalization for decades, but some unofficial statements estimate that unemployment rates might have surged to 60 percent in the governorate because of the military campaign and interruption of economic activity, particularly affecting farming.

Demolitions, Restrictions on Movement

In January al-Sisi announced a plan to forcibly evict and demolish all farms and houses within a five-kilometer circle around al-Arish airport to create an airport security buffer zone. The demolitions started soon afterward, media reports said, but no official decrees were published in the Official Gazette to lawfully frame the decision or establish a clear way for affected citizens to claim compensation. The People’s Committee said in a statement that “there are several other ways to secure the airport” and that the decision was “a pretext” to evict residents from other parts of Sinai.

Ongoing home demolitions and forced evictions in different cities have left many families with limited options. Many who could not afford to move to another city or received no compensation live in rudimentary shacks – which the army frequently calls “terrorists’ hideouts” – in the villages around Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed. Most of North Sinai is under a state of emergency, and an evening and early morning curfew has been in effect since October 2014.

Since the restrictions began, people who were outside Sinai have not been able to return to their homes on regular routes, as the army controls al-Salam Bridge and the nearby ferry, the main transportation links between North Sinai and Egypt’s mainland. Some families have been separated for more than two months. Small numbers were allowed to return on a bus provided by the government in the nearby Ismailiya governorate.

On March 9, one month after the beginning of the restrictions, the administration of North Sinai governorate posted a link on its Facebook page for residents “stuck” outside the governorate to fill in a form and wait for the administration to contact them.

A ban on traveling to mainland Egypt appears to apply to all residents, and the army did not announce clear procedures for exceptions on those restrictions for critical medical cases.

People who want to travel to mainland Egypt have to register at the governorate administration and wait for officials to contact them. Residents said personal “connections” with security officials can facilitate permission. Official statements on the governorate’s website say that only 113 people with medical needs and their escorting relatives and 420 students were allowed to travel to Egypt’s mainland from February 9 to 25.

In Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed, the army even seized donkeys that residents used for transportation after service stations were closed down. Al-Manassa independent news website said on March 20 that security measures were also restricting using donkeys for transportation.

Food and Water Crisis

The evidence gathered reveals that the army restrictions has exacerbated the suffering of residents already bearing the consequences of intensive military operations in their villages and cities over the past four years and caused a serious food shortage. This food crisis appears to be most serious in Sheikh Zuwayed and what remains of Rafah, a city almost entirely demolished after the government ordered almost all of its residents evicted to create a security buffer zone in 2014.

The army spokesperson released videos of women and children lining up to receive what seemed to be boxes of food distributed by the army. The same official statements, such as footage posted on April 8, show that the National Service Projects Organization, the Defense Ministry’s entity that owns and runs scores of commercial projects across the country, appears to be selling many of these supplies. The small quantities of goods that the government allowed since February might have allowed market to reopen briefly but did not resolve the crisis.

Hefny said that, “The government is dealing with an abnormal situation as if it was normal, although they themselves call it a war.” Some people had to wait for weeks to be allowed to travel and had to pay double the usual price [for the local bus], he said. “People would line up in very long lines in front of a shop without even knowing what [this shop] would be selling.”

Hefny and other witnesses said there was a bread shortage and that “exploitation by a few traders” in the absence of effective monitoring has meant that they have a monopoly on key items. He blamed the government for the crisis because the situation should be managed as in “a state of war,” he said.  

According to witnesses, there is also a severe shortage of drinking water east of al-Arish, as residents rely heavily on wells that need electricity or fuel to operate. Al-Manassa reported that many residents turned to collecting rainwater for essential needs. Media reports have said before that the army also restricted the use of big water trucks after militants had used them to make bombs.

Accounts of the situation in al-Arish and Baer al-Abd

“It’s a complete humiliation … There’s severe shortage of food,” said “Tawfik,” an employee from al-Arish whose wife and child were outside Sinai when the restrictions began and who has not been able to reunite with them.

Tawfik said that he needed to see a doctor for a minor medical condition, but that without transportation, it took him several days. “Transportation is rare and expensive,” he said. “Gas is [only] sold on the black market... and people pay ten pounds [0.56] instead of two [0.11] to ride in a pick-up car.”

Still image from a video posted on the Egyptian Army Official Spokesman Facebook Page on April 8, apparently showing army distributing boxes of free food to some residents in North Sinai. Witnesses said free food distributed was very limited and did not meet their needs. 

© 2018 Egyptian Army Official Spokesman Facebook Page

“My friends are struggling with [feeding] their kids because of the lack of dairy products and yogurt,” he said. “There are no eggs, no vegetables, no fruits, nothing.” Tawfik said that food is sold on army trucks and sometimes by associations that belong to the Supply and Internal Trading Ministry, the government entity that controls strategic goods. He said that the government charges the pre-restrictions market price but that the quantities are insufficient:

Quantities are limited and not available daily. The lines [of people waiting] have become very long and [the quantities] don’t suffice. I haven’t gone yet. I won’t humiliate myself for any reason.

On March 19, Mada Masr reported, citing witness accounts, that soldiers fired their guns in al-Arish to force people gathered to buy food to line up outside the distribution center, injuring four people by shrapnel. One injured woman lost her vision in one eye, but her family has not been able to take her outside Sinai for treatment because of the closure of roads.

Tawfik said that the restrictions on movement, goods, and food has interrupted local economic activities and the situation became “harsh for all business owners and workers as there isn’t considerable income. For example, who would buy clothes in such circumstances?”

Mada Masr quoted Khaled Mohamed, a man in his thirties from al-Arish, who said he waited hours for army trucks selling food to arrive two weeks after the restrictions began. The scene was “very absurd and frightening,” Mohamed said. “We were running after trucks to get food!” A few days later, people went to a vegetable market one night when they heard three trucks were arriving to sell food, Mada Masr said. A video published on Facebook by a resident in al-Arish, before he deleted it, showed dozens of al-Arish residents running after a truck that was reported to be distributing free vegetables.

Tawfik also said that the army sometimes provided free boxes of food. He said the boxes usually contained a quarter kilo of tea, as well as sugar, margarine, marmalade, and lentils. He said all of these were still available in the market except for the lentils.

Tawfik said he did not try to bring his family back to Sinai. “If the boy gets sick, I won’t find medicine or transportation to take him to a doctor.” He said there was also a shortage of some medicines. He said he met someone who was able to come back to North Sinai on the government bus: “It took them two and half days on the road instead of two and half hours.” Hospitals and medical centers in North Sinai had already been severely understaffed.

“Mahfouz,” 34, from al-Arish, said that “kids were screaming from hunger” and that “obtaining some vegetables has become a miracle.” He said that on one occasion he stood in line from 7 a.m. until 10 a.m. to buy bread. He said that now his family eats once a day, sometimes due to the lack of food, and that for the most part there was no baby formula.

Tawfik, Mahfouz, and Mohsen, another resident of al-Arish, said that the army allowed medicine companies to deliver medicine to pharmacies after initial shortages.

Residents of Baer al-Abd have faced some restrictions, but it is not as tightly controlled as other places in North Sinai. “Zaynab,” who lives close to Baer al-Abad, said that the army prevented farmers of the city from selling their vegetables, poultry, and other products in other cities in Sinai. This has led to the spoiling of crops and substantial financial losses.

Zaynab said that people in Baer al-Abd can move relatively freely, but that in al-Arish, the transportation “is almost non-existent … There are four or five buses run by the governorate administration that transport people [inside the city] for free … [but] these are very insufficient.”

Still images from a video posted on the Egyptian Army Official Spokesman Facebook Page on April 8, apparently showing army selling (above) and distributing (below) food to residents in North Sinai. 

© 2018 Egyptian Army Official Spokesman Facebook Page

The army has also prevented selling cooking gas cylinders in al-Arish, which had shortages even before the current campaign. But Zaynab said that the army allowed distributors to refill cylinders in Baer al-Abd and sell them in al-Arish five or four times since February 9. Two al-Arish residents said that they relied on electric appliances for cooking because they could not obtain cooking gas.

The government allowed more hours of telecommunications and electricity service during the presidential election days, from March 26 to 28. Mada Masr reported on March 29 that the government allowed the delivery of several food products at the al-Arish local markets, including eggs, fish, milk, and others that had not been available since February 9. Mada Masr said that people rushed to buy what was available.

Accounts of the situation in Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah

The two main cities east of al-Arish are Sheikh Zuwayed and what remains of Rafah, a city on the border with Gaza where the army evicted most of its 70,000 residents, apparently leaving only a few thousand. Residents in these cities and villages around them are suffering from much harsher conditions, as army restrictions on goods have long existed even before the February 9 campaign. The army has become the only source of food for many, and residents report that it is sold at higher prices than before the restrictions, sometimes double the cost. People rely on wood fires and face shortages of water, medicines, and medical services.

It is not the first time that the army has restricted the delivery of food in both cities, but it is the first time the restrictions lasted for weeks. Vehicle fuel sales have been banned in these cities for years, and residents were only allowed to buy fuel in al-Arish but since February 9 this has also been banned. For example, on March 16, 2017, the privately-owned al-Shorouk newspaper reported that “commerce was about to vanish in Sheikh Zuwayed” because of army restrictions on movement of all sorts of goods. In May 2015, closure of roads to Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah led to sharp shortages of food and medicine for almost two weeks before the army eased its restrictions. In the May 2015 crises, an unnamed official from the Supplies Ministry told the pro-government Dotmasr website that the crisis was “out of the ministry’s hands” and that army checkpoints were controlling the flow of goods. In November and December 2017, electricity was cut for three weeks.

“Mahmoud,” an Egyptian young man from who lives outside Sinai and has immediate family in Shaykh Zuwayed and Rafah, described his family’s life under the restrictions:

People come walking from all areas, [but] only those who have money. They have to pass all checkpoints and [suffer] humiliation and line up in long lines. Most of them are women because men are afraid of getting arrested. The line could be up to hundreds of people and they start lining up four hours before the [food] trucks arrive. 

Mahmoud said that family members described scenes in which the army would use gunfire to frighten people into lining up for food distributions:

[One time, soldiers] fired in the air. They started shouting at people “Sit! Stand! Sit! Stand!” to humiliate them. They said, “you don’t deserve to eat … you are sons of bastards.” The last time [the army came to sell food], they left people behind and moved without selling anything. The army sells food at double the price and not of a good quality.

He said that a relative of his has a small tract of land where he used to plant some vegetables, “but [now] the vegetables were finished.” Residents could not farm because “there’s no water,” Mahmoud said. He said that to bring water, people have to go to the “Abu Taweela” area, between Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed, passing several checkpoints, where there is a person who owns a well operated by generator. He said that his brother once bought 10 gallons, but on his way back army officers stopped him and took the water. “You are taking it to the terrorists,” the officers told Mahmoud’s brother.

“To carry water, you have to obtain permission from the army officers at the checkpoint,” he said. “It is valid for one time.” He said that people feel “humiliated,” especially when they think about their farming heritage:

Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah were the source of vegetables, tomatoes, potatoes, oranges, and clementines. We used to produce for ourselves and export the excess, and farming was the residents’ main job.


“Now, they all eat bread, onions, and khobbeizeh, greens that grow wild in their towns. Since the restrictions began, women started looking for this plant to cook it," he said.

Mahmoud said his mother stopped telling him the details of their lives because it made him cry: “My mother was a woman with dignity. Last week, she tried to find three eggs for ten pounds [0.56 USD] and could hardly find them.”

Mahmoud said that there was no milk at their home to feed his nephews and nieces and that a relative of his, who is pregnant, “keeps fainting as she cannot find food.” “My mother told me they didn’t know where to find a doctor and that they could not find milk.” He said that al-Sheikh Zuwayed Public Hospital, the city’s only medical facility, was barely functioning. “Only a couple of nurses and maybe a general practitioner [worked] sometimes. And you have to pass checkpoints and [face] humiliation and gunfire.”

He also said that a member of his relative’s family had been outside Sinai when the restrictions began and has not been able to come back since, so the relative’s family has lost its source of income. The army seized Mahmoud’s brother’s car in Shaykh Zuwayed without offering any legal reason. “Now my brother is at home [without work] feeling oppressed and can’t even buy yogurt for his daughter,” Mahmoud said.”

Cooking gas was hard to get in the beginning of the restrictions and later completely banned, Mahmoud said. “People use wood fires to cook.” He said that his family usually ate one meal every two days, depending on how much food they found.

“Laila,” who lives in the al-Hussaynat area, between Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed, said that she could not find enough food to feed her 10 children and grandchildren. She said she is a widow and that the army demolished their house and farm in Rafah as part of the forced evictions when they created the buffer zone. The farm was the only source of income for the family, but they received no compensation.

Laila walks dozens of kilometers to find food for her children and grandchildren and knocks on doors begging for food. Her family has also tried to hunt birds. They captured two birds in three days and made soup to feed the children.

The quasi-official Facebook page Electricity News in Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed – a page that usually publishes news about power cuts, cable damages, and maintenance operations – published a call for help on March 5 for a three-month baby girl who needed baby formula, which her family could not find. The page said that the father, from al-Hussaynat area, was “crying and said he was feeding her cooked rice – otherwise she would die.” The page called on the army to provide milk for the baby, food, and yogurt.

It is very difficult for journalists to reach villages around Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed, but the conditions there are probably more severe, especially in al-Masoura village, south of Rafah. On April 7, the pro-government al-Watan newspaper said that the army finally “opened al-Masoura road” to allow residents, whose houses were being demolished, to leave to al-Arish and other areas in the governorate. The report quoted Khaled Kamal, the head of Rafah City Council, who said that they “received urgent help requests” from al-Masoura residents who wanted to leave. He rejected claims that residents were trapped or prevented from taking their possessions and furniture. However, he said that they rejected requests “from families of non-evicted areas to move them” because they only facilitate the move of residents of evicted areas.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Displaced Iraqi families pictured in a camp. © 2017 by Human Rights Watch

(Washington, DC) – The United States government should not transfer a US citizen detained abroad to the custody of any country where he faces a substantial risk of torture, Human Rights Watch said today. On April 17, 2018, the US filed notice in US federal court indicating it plans to transfer the detainee to another government’s custody, which media reports suggest is Saudi Arabia or Iraq. 
The US should either prosecute the detainee in US federal court if there is evidence he committed a crime, or release him, Human Rights Watch said.

“The US should not be transferring anyone to a country where they face a risk of torture or ill-treatment,” said Laura Pitter, senior US national security counsel at Human Rights Watch. “The detainee has the right to contest his transfer to Saudi Arabia, Iraq, or any other country where he might face torture.”

The US government has been holding the prisoner, a dual US and Saudi citizen identified only as “John Doe” in court papers, at an undisclosed military prison in Iraq since he surrendered to US-allied forces in Syria in September 2017. According to media reports and court filings, the US suspects the detainee of being a low-level fighter with the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). In court filings the detainee disputes this, asserting he travelled to Syria to report on the conflict but was kidnapped and imprisoned by ISIS and tried numerous times to escape. The US has not publicly charged him with a criminal offense. The April 17 notice was filed in US Federal Court for the District of Columbia indicating that it intended to transfer him to an undisclosed country within the next 72 hours. 

The US initially contested attempts to permit the detainee access to a lawyer but after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued, a US federal court ordered the government to permit the ACLU access. The ACLU challenged his detention in court ever since, as well as the government’s ability to transfer him to another country. On January 23, US District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan ordered the US government to give the court 72 hours’ notice if it intended to transfer the prisoner, which would permit the ACLU to file an emergency motion to block the transfer, which it did on April 18

The United Nations Convention against Torture, which the US ratified in 1994, prohibits transferring anyone to the custody of another country where there are substantial grounds for believing that the individual would be in danger of being subjected to torture or other ill-treatment.  

In Saudi Arabia, Human Rights Watch has documented the use of torture in detention facilities. There have also been numerous cases in which criminal suspects alleged abuse in court. However, the courts, without investigating the claims, instead based convictions on allegedly coerced confessions. In Iraq, Human Rights Watch has documented a pattern of torture of captured extremist suspects, as well as sham trials followed by executions.

“It’s bad enough that the US has been detaining this individual for months, fighting his right to contest his detention and access to legal counsel,” Pitter said. “If the US now intends to transfer him to another country, it needs to make sure he won’t face a risk of torture and can challenge the transfer.”


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Numerous concerns have been raised about Mike Pompeo, President Trump’s nominee for secretary of state. Though the US Senate confirmed him as  the Central Intelligence Agency director, albeit with significant objection, his new role would be much different and raises a host of new concerns.

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Mike Pompeo testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., February 13, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

One is the influence he could exert over US overseas “rendition” policy – how the US handles the transfer of people from US custody to the custody of other governments or non-state armed groups abroad. US rendition practices in the years following the September 2001 attacks resulted in numerous abuses. In addition to unlawfully detaining and torturing scores of men in US custody, the US also sent an unknown number to countries where they faced torture — and many indeed were tortured –, violating the Convention against Torture, to which the US is party.

The Obama administration refused to take as strong a position as it could have on whether the US is legally bound by that treaty’s  prohibition on transferring people to places where they face a substantial risk of torture when that transfer takes place outside of US territory. Its position remained shrouded in secrecy.

Only after it released an unclassified portion of US overseas transfer policy as part of a summary of its legal positions at the end Obama’s second term did it become clear that it had adopted the George W. Bush administration’s position that the US is not legally bound by the treaty’s transfer provisions when those transfers take place outside the US. However, it did state that the US applied convention obligations as a matter of policy to all transfers regardless of location.

The position is contrary to international law and went against the advice of many key senior Obama officials, including the State Department legal adviser, Harold Koh. In 2013 Koh wrote a 90-page memo urging the administration to reject the “untenable” legal position that the US is not legally bound by this treaty provision concerning a transfer outside of US borders.

Given the integral role the State Department plays in these transfers, along with Pompeo’s past expression of support for CIA torture and his apparent frustration with laws barring it, senators should make this issue a major focus of his confirmation hearings. Does he consider the US to be bound by the convention’s transfer provisions outside the US? If not, will he commit to apply the convention’s standards on transfer as a matter of policy as the prior administration did? If so, how will he ensure this policy is enforced? Will he ensure that the US never transfers anyone from US custody to a government or non-state armed group when they are likely to face torture?

Though senators questioned Pompeo about his attitudes on torture during his CIA confirmation hearing, those questions focused mostly on whether he would abide by a 2015 law enacted after he made his views in support of the CIA’s use of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” known. During his confirmation hearing, he did recognize the validity of that 2015 law and promised to respect it but in written follow-up questions and during interviews while CIA director, said he would look at the possibility of revising that law or finding ways around it if he found that US interrogators were unduly constrained.

There are strong safeguards against revising the 2015 law, which requires US interrogators to use only those techniques listed in the US Army Field Manual. The manual, which has its flaws, explicitly bans many unlawful practices the CIA used in the past, such as waterboarding, and torture more generally. Any revisions would have to be approved by Defense Secretary James Mattis, an outspoken critic of the use of torture, who at one point seemed to have convinced Trump that using it was ineffective, if not necessarily wrong. This time around, senators should focus their questions on the US overseas transfer policy given how much influence on these matters Pompeo could exert at the State Department. According to former senior State Department and National Security Council officials, the State Department is deeply involved in negotiating these transfers, determining their legality and appropriateness, and ensuring certain safeguards are in place when they do occur.

These questions are more important than ever given the shifting dynamics of US military operations. The US is engaged in major military operations around the world yet it has drastically reduced its detention operations in these locations. It relies more than ever on partner forces that detain and interrogate people in their custody. Just days ago it was revealed that the US military is spending about $1 million to help detain thousands of Islamic State fighters and their family members in makeshift camps run by Kurdish militias in northern Syria.

The only new detainee the Trump administration says it is holding is an unnamed American citizen in Iraq. This detainee requested a lawyer but the US refused to provide one until a court ordered it months later, after the American Civil Liberties Union sued to represent him. It also sought to transfer him to Saudi Arabia even though it has a well-known record of torture. In Yemen, US interrogators have questioneddetainees in secret prisons run by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and UAE-backed Yemeni forces where torture is widespread, and in another undisclosed location where the detention conditions were not known.

In this environment, the line between where partner custody ends, and US custody begins, as well as what constitutes a transfer to another government’s custody, should be closely watched. Pompeo’s expressed frustration with laws banning torture, the leading role the State Department plays in overseas transfers, and the limited domestic legal constraints on them, should make these issues and questions an important focus of Pompeo’s upcoming nomination hearing.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Person waives an Islamic State of Iraq and Sham(ISIS) flag in Raqqa, Syria, on June 29, 2014.

© 2014 Reuters

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) recently gave journalists access to Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee el-Sheikh, both UK nationals in the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) reportedly implicated in the torture and beheading of several foreigners, including journalists and aid workers.

Detained foreign ISIS suspects interest the public and foreign journalists are often seeking ways to get them on camera. But here is the snag. The laws of war prohibit subjecting detainees to “public curiosity.” These prisoners – who have no lawyers – are in no position to freely answer questions before the cameras. They said they were not being mistreated in custody – but could they have safely given another answer before being returned to their captors? They were asked questions about their involvement in terrible crimes, but how to evaluate their answers knowing that a future prosecutor will make use of such recordings.

In the catalogue of horrors that has been the conflict in Syria, this may seem like a minor issue, but it goes to the heart of a broader question: despite ISIS’s ghastly record of cruelty and atrocity, can’t we treat these men similarly to prisoners from other wars?

Watching the two men on TV is not easy; they express no remorse or empathy for victims. When asked if he disagreed with some ISIS policies, el-Sheikh said he disagreed with “traffic tickets and other such things that have no basis in the law of Allah.” He refused to denounce enslaving Yezidis.

Both men appear to be challenging the world to provide them with a fair trial.

“I am not a democratic person, but I am being subjected to democratic law. So, it is only right for those who claim to uphold this to fully uphold it,” said el-Sheikh.

“The American administration or British government – if they decided they wanted to be champions of the Sharia and apply Islamic law upon myself and Shaf [el-Sheikh], then by all means. If not, then they should adhere to that which they claim to be champions of,” said Kotey.

Watching them, I would lose no sleep if they were denied a fair hearing. But choosing revenge over justice would be a mistake. Fair trials speak to our commitment to due process and the rule of law in the face of despicable acts. It is also about remembering the victims of ISIS and their relatives – many of whom have refused to fall into the trap of revenge.

Diane Foley, the mother of American journalist James Foley, who was executed by ISIS, said she hopes to see Kotey and el-Sheikh given a fair trial and receive life sentences. She doesn’t want the men sent to the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay: “It would perpetuate the hatred. … We need to show them what real justice looks like.”

Antoine Leiris, the spouse of one of the victims of the 2015 Bataclan attack in Paris, wrote a moving Facebook post directed at the perpetrators of the attack, saying, among other things, “I will not give you the gift of hating you.”

Watching the interviews with the two men, it is easy to hate them. But we should not give them this gift. Let’s show them what real justice looks like, not the one meted out to their victims.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Gina Haspel, a veteran CIA clandestine officer picked by U.S. President Donald Trump to head the Central Intelligence Agency, is shown in this handout photograph released on March 13, 2018.

© 2018 CIA handout
(Washington, DC) – The US Senate should oppose the nomination of Gina Haspel to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the Senate leadership and Select Committee on Intelligence. She was closely involved in the torture of detainees under the CIA’s Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation (RDI) program, and the destruction of related evidence.

The government should disclose more information about Haspel’s role in the RDI program, but what is already known should disqualify her from serving as CIA director and other senior government positions.

“President Donald Trump’s decision to nominate someone directly involved in overseeing the US torture of detainees and destroying evidence of it makes a mockery of laws prohibiting torture,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, executive director of the US program at Human Rights Watch. “Haspel’s confirmation at a time when the US president himself has endorsed torture would send a message that violations of fundamental rights will not only be tolerated but rewarded.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Gina Haspel, a veteran CIA clandestine officer picked by U.S. President Donald Trump to head the Central Intelligence Agency, is shown in this handout photograph released on March 13, 2018.

© 2018 CIA handout


March 23, 2018

The Honorable Mitch McConnell
Senate Majority Leader, US Senate

The Honorable Chuck Schumer
Senate Minority Leader, US Senate

The Honorable Richard Burr
Chairman, US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence

The Honorable Mark Warner
Vice Chairman, US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence

Re: Nomination of Gina Haspel to be CIA Director

Dear Majority Leader McConnell, Minority Leader Schumer, Chairman Burr, and Vice Chairman Warner:

We write on behalf of Human Rights Watch to express our opposition to the impending nomination of Gina Haspel to be Central Intelligence Agency director.

President Donald Trump’s decision to nominate as CIA director someone closely involved in the torture of detainees under the CIA’s Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation (RDI) program,[1] and the destruction of related evidence, demonstrates contempt for the prohibition against torture under US and international law. It sends a message to the American people and the world that acting without regard for rights protections and the rule of law will be rewarded.

Much of Haspel’s role in the RDI program is not publicly known because the government has classified extensive information related to that program. Information on her role should be declassified and released publicly prior to her hearing so that both senators and the American public have a clear and full understanding of her record. However, what is already known should disqualify her from this critical cabinet-level position.

Ran CIA “Black Site,” Oversaw Torture

Haspel is credibly reported to have run a CIA “black site” in Thailand from late October 2002 until late December 2002 where at least two detainees, Abu Zubaydah, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, were held.[2]

Though Haspel appears to have physically arrived at the Thai site toward the end of Abu Zubaydah’s most aggressive interrogation period, she would have known or should have learned that Abu Zubaydah had been subject to extensive torture and ill-treatment. This included being stripped naked, hit, slammed into walls, shackled into extremely painful stress positions, subjected to extreme cold, and waterboarded 83 times—on at least one occasion to the point of near death.[3]

Within weeks of her arrival, Haspel supervised the interrogation of al-Nashiri, a new detainee brought to the site. Interrogators used many of the same unlawful techniques used on Abu Zubaydah, including waterboarding.[4]

Role in Other Aspects of the RDI Program

By the end of December 2002, Haspel reportedly returned to the CIA Counterterrorism Center outside Washington as an operations officer.[5] No public record exists of the role she played in the RDI program between then and the time that she became chief of staff to Jose Rodriguez, who headed the CIA’s National Clandestine Service from 2004 or 2005 until 2007.[6] But credible, public accounts suggest that during this time she played a leading, supervisory role.

In his book, former CIA General Counsel John Rizzo describes Haspel as having “run the [CIA] interrogation program.”[7] Glenn Carle, a former undercover CIA operative involved in interrogating a detainee in CIA custody described her as “one of the architects, designers, implementers and one of the top two managers of the [CIA interrogation program].”[8]

In addition to using so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” the CIA also held detainees in long-term incommunicado detention in unsanitary conditions, forced detainees to be naked or wear diapers, and deprived them of food, and fed at least five detainees through their rectums.[9] The agency also unlawfully rendered numerous men to various countries, many of whom were then tortured by US partner forces.[10]

Haspel should publicly explain which aspects of the CIA program she was involved in during this time, if any, and her role. The CIA has admitted to a number of “management failures” during the time that she was in charge of the Thailand CIA “black cite.”[11] This included a failure to discipline for detainee abuse. The agency also admitted to inflating the value of intelligence gathered from detainees to continue justifying the program.[12] 

Destruction of Videotapes

In 2005 Haspel was involved in destroying 96 videotapes of some of the most violent images of CIA torture, mostly depicting the torture of Abu Zubaydah.[13] During one waterboarding session likely recorded, a CIA cable describes Abu Zubaydah having become “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.”[14] John McPhearson, a CIA lawyer who reviewed the tapes, said they showed Abu Zubaydah, “crying” and “gagging” and that they were “very unpleasant to look at.”[15] 

In November 2005, Haspel drafted the order to destroy the tapes and Rodriguez signed it though Rizzo had instructed Rodriguez not to do so without his and further White House approval.[16] According to Rizzo, Rodriguez and Haspel were “the staunchest advocates inside the [CIA] for destroying the tapes,”[17] and Rodriguez said in his book that destroying the tapes was something that he and Haspel had been trying to do for a long time.[18]


The US Senate is charged with scrupulously examining the administration’s nominee for CIA director. Given her record, confirming Haspel would not only erode US respect for the prohibition on torture and other ill-treatment but would undermine US commitments to human rights at home and abroad. For these reasons, we urge you to oppose her nomination.


Nicole Austin-Hillery
Executive Director, US Program
Human Rights Watch

Sarah Margon
Washington Director
Human Rights Watch


[1] Human Rights Watch, No More Excuses: A Roadmap to Justice for CIA Torture, December 2015, https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/12/01/no-more-excuses/roadmap-justice-cia-torture.

[2] Adam Goldman, “Gina Haspel, Trump’s Choice for C.I.A., Played Role in Torture Program,” New York Times, March 13, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/13/us/politics/gina-haspel-cia-director-nominee-trump-torture-waterboarding.html?smid=tw-share (accessed March 18, 2018).

[3] Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, “Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program,” Executive Summary, December 13, 2012, https://www.feinstein.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/7/c/7c85429a-ec38-4bb5-968f-289799bf6d0e/D87288C34A6D9FF736F9459ABCF83210.sscistudy1.pdf (accessed March 18, 2018)(hereinafter “Senate Summary”), pp. 31-47.

[4] Senate Summary, p. 67.

[5] Goldman, New York Times, March 13, 2018.

[6] Jose Rodriguez, “A CIA veteran on what ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ gets wrong about the bin Laden Manhunt,” Washington Post, January 3, 2013,  https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-cia-veteran-on-what-zero-dark-thirty-gets-wrong-about-the-bin-laden-manhunt/2013/01/03/4a76f1b8-52cc-11e2-a613- ec8d394535c6_story.html?utm_term=.e33121c5e84a (accessed March 19, 2018).

[7] John Rizzo, A Company Man, Scribner: New York 2014, p. 14.

[8] Natasha Bertrand, “A Controversial Record of Torture, but Maybe Not a Deal-Breaker for Democrats,” The Atlantic, March 13, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/03/democrats-may-look-past-a-cia-nominees-record-on-torture/555554/ (accessed March 19, 2018).

[9] See generally, Senate Summary. See also: Human Rights Watch, No More Excuses: A Roadmap to Justice for CIA Torture

[10] See Human Rights Watch, Delivered Into Enemy Hands: US-Led Renditions to Gaddafi’s Libya, September 5, 2012, https://www.hrw.org/report/2012/09/05/delivered-enemy-hands/us-led-abuse-and-rendition-opponents-gaddafis-libya; See also, Globalization of Torture Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), “Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition,” February 2013, http://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/sites/default/files/globalizing-torture-20120205.pdf (accessed March 20, 2018).

[11] See U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, “Comments on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Former Detention and Interrogation Program,” June 27, 2013, https://www.cia.gov/library/reports/CIAs_June2013_Response_to_the_SSCI_Study_on_the_Former_Detention_and_Interrogation_Program.pdf (accessed March 22, 2018).

[12] Ali Watkins, “CIA Strikes Back At Senate: Torture Program Was Poorly Run, But It Worked,” The Huffington Post, December 9, 2014, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/09/cia-torture-program_n_6272220.html (accessed March 22, 2018).

[13] The exact number of tapes destroyed varies by source. In his book, “A Company Man, former CIA General Counsel John Rizzo who has a first-hand account of the episode, says there were 100 hours of recordings on 96 tapes. See Rizzo, A Company Man, p. 7. Many media reports say 92 tapes were destroyed. See e.g., Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo, “Lawyers Left Off Memo to Destroy CIA Terror Tapes,” Associated Press, July 26, 2010, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/38416094/ns/us_news-security/t/lawyers-left-memo-destroy-cia-terror-tapes/#.WquUY6jwY2x (accessed March 20, 2-018).

[14] Annabelle Timsit, “What Happened at the Thailand 'Black Site' Run by Trump's CIA Pick,” The Atlantic, March 14, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/03/gina-haspel-black-site-torture-cia/555539/?utm_source=poltw (accessed March 22, 2018).

[15] Rizzo, A Company Man, p. 8.

[16] Ibid,. pp. 16-17.

[17] Ibid., p. 14.

[18] Jose Rodriguez, Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives, Threshold Editions: New York, 2012, p. 193.


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

March 16, 2018

Dear Senator,

We write to express our grave concerns regarding the nomination of Gina Haspel for Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and to ask that you not advance her nomination until all of the records on her past involvement in the CIA torture program are declassified and released to the public.  Senators should be concerned not only by Ms. Haspel’s reported role overseeing the torture of detainees at a secret CIA detention site in Thailand, but also by her participation in a deliberate attempt to avoid accountability by destroying video evidence of CIA torture.

Ms. Haspel joined the CIA in 1985, and has held several leadership roles in the agency’s clandestine operations. She was named Deputy Director of the CIA in 2017, despite the objections of senators who urged President Trump to reconsider her nomination in light of her past connection to torture.[1] Amid similar controversy in 2013, Haspel was denied a promotion to lead the CIA’s National Clandestine Service.[2]

We have strong concerns about Ms. Haspel’s reported role overseeing the torture of detainees at a clandestine detention site in Thailand, and her subsequent role in the destruction of evidence of those torture crimes. Detainees at the Thailand “black site” were waterboarded, slammed against walls, subjected to enforced sleeplessness, and confined to coffin-shaped boxes, among other criminal practices.[3] Ms. Haspel reportedly was in a supervisory position over the Thailand “black site” during this period—including an on-site leadership role when at least one detainee was brutally tortured—and knew about, reported on, and was otherwise involved in other cases of torture and detainee abuse.[4] But the full extent of her involvement is impossible to confirm because the CIA continues to insist that information about the full extent of her role remain classified. Executive Order 13526 prohibits the classification of records to “conceal violations of law, inefficiency, or administrative error” or “prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency,” so there is no reason for the torture program, or Ms. Haspel’s role in it, to remain classified.  Senators and the American people must be able to read these documents in assessing her nomination to be CIA Director.[5]

In addition to her role overseeing the use of torture, Ms. Haspel’s participation in the destruction of videotapes of the torture program, over objections of White House counsel and CIA General Counsel among others, is alarming. In November 2005, amid increasing public outrage over revelations of torture at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba detention facility, the CIA destroyed 92 videotapes of interrogations at clandestine facilities elsewhere.[6]  While the CIA maintains that the decision to destroy the tapes was made by then-Director of the National Clandestine Service Jose Rodriguez, Rodriguez says in his 2013 book that Haspel drafted the order herself.[7] Former CIA Acting General Counsel John Rizzo says Haspel and Rodriguez were the “staunchest advocates inside the building for destroying the tapes.”[8]

Destruction of the tapes appears to constitute a concerted effort to escape embarrassment and legal consequences. In 2004, in a Freedom of Information Act suit filed by the ACLU, a judge had ordered the government to preserve all records related to abuse of detainees overseas, which clearly applied to the videotapes.[9] The incident was also a clear violation of the Federal Records Act, and indicates that Ms. Haspel does not believe she has an obligation to follow the law or a court order.[10]  The destruction of the videotapes even prompted then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey to appoint a prosecutor to investigate the destruction.

The Senate’s constitutional obligation to “advise and consent” on any nomination requires that it have full access to relevant information on the nominees before it. In Ms. Haspel’s case, the precise details of her role in the torture program remain classified. All senators should demand that those records be declassified and made public—before her nomination moves any further—so that they can actually discuss Ms. Haspel’s deeply disturbing background in open session, and so that the public can glean a more detailed picture of her role in one of the darkest chapters in U.S. history.

Ms. Haspel was a central figure in the torture program and the destruction of evidence of torture. Based on already available records and public reporting, it is clear by her wrongdoing that she demonstrated disregard for the rule of law and fundamental human rights.


American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee
American Civil Liberties Union
Arab American Institute
Brennan Center for Justice
Campaign for Liberty
Center for Constitutional Rights
Center for Victims of Torture
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington
Defending Rights & Dissent
Demand Progress Action
Free Press
Government Accountability Project
Government Information Watch
Herd on the Hill
Human Rights First
Human Rights Watch
National Religious Campaign Against Torture
National Security Archive
No More Guantanamos
North Carolina Stop Torture Now
Open the Government
PEN America
Physicians for Human Rights
Project On Government Oversight
Restore The Fourth
Sunlight Foundation
Win Without War

[1] See: “Wyden, Heinrich Express Concern on Selection of Gina Haspel to be Deputy Director of the CIA,” February 2, 2017, available at: https://www.wyden.senate.gov/news/press-releases/wyden-heinrich-express-...

[2] Greg Miller, “CIA selects new head of clandestine service, passing over female officer,” Washington Post, May 7, 2013, available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/cia-selects-new-h...

[3] Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, “Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program,” Executive Summary, December 13, 2012, available at: https://www.feinstein.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/7/c/7c85429a-ec38-4...

[4] Adam Goldman, “Gina Haspel, Trump’s Choice for C.I.A., Played Role in Torture Program,” New York Times, March 13, 2018, available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/13/us/politics/gina-haspel-cia-director-...

[5] See: “Heinrich, Wyden Urge CIA to Declassify Information About Deputy Director Haspel’s Background,” February 23, 2017, available at: https://www.heinrich.senate.gov/press-releases/heinrich-wyden-urge-cia-t...

[6] Mark Mazetti, “U.S. Says C.I.A. Destroyed 92 Tapes of Interrogations,” New York Times, March 2, 2009, available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/03/washington/03web-intel.html

[7] Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives, Threshold Editions, 2013, pg. 193.

[8] John Rizzo, Company Man: 30 Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA, Scribner, 2014, pg. 14.

[9] See: ACLU v. Department of Defense, available at: https://www.aclu.org/cases/aclu-v-department-defense

[10] Federal Records Act, 44 U.S.C. Chapter 31.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Representative Mike Pompeo (R-KS) testifies before a Senate Intelligence hearing on his nomination to head the CIA on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 12, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

(Washington, DC) – In response to President Donald Trump’s nomination of Mike Pompeo to be Secretary of State and Gina Haspel as CIA Director please find the following response from Sarah Margon, Washington Director at Human Rights Watch:

“US President Donald Trump’s decision to nominate Mike Pompeo to be Secretary of State and Gina Haspel to succeed him as CIA Director is deeply troubling because of their past endorsements of torture.

“During his CIA confirmation hearing on January 12, 2017, Pompeo failed to unequivocally disavow the US government’s use of torture and mass surveillance. In a January 2018 speech on interrogation methods, Pompeo again missed an opportunity to reject torture and suggested coercive methods were acceptable. If Pompeo is confirmed to be the global face of the US government, his views on torture would harm the standing of the US abroad.

“Haspel is credibly reported to have run a CIA “black site” in Thailand as part of a US program that used torture after the 9/11 attacks. She later served as chief of staff to Jose Rodriguez, who led the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center from approximately 2002 to 2004. In these positions she would have been directly involved in the CIA’s notorious and unlawful rendition, detention, and interrogation program. The government should investigate Haspel for past violations, not nominate her for higher office.

“Given their histories, the potential for Pompeo and Haspel to endorse abusive practices and lend support for their use abroad should convince the Senate to reject both nominations.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Entrance to the Badia school that was struck by coalition aircraft on March 20, 2017. 

© 2017 Ole Solvang/Human Rights Watch

On March 20 of last year, an aircraft of the US-led coalition struck a boarding school in Mansourah, near Raqqa, Syria. The building was completely destroyed. What was hit and who died in this strike has been a subject of contention ever since. The coalition has maintained that the building was an Islamic State (also known as ISIS) intelligence headquarters and weapons storage facility where more than 30 ISIS militants typically stayed and that no civilians were harmed.

Last July, I visited the school as part of a Human Rights Watch investigation and we came to a very different conclusion. After interviewing a dozen witnesses, including two survivors, we found that far from being a military base, the school had been housing large numbers of displaced civilians. While witnesses said that some of the civilians were relatives of ISIS fighters who had fled Iraq, they said that the school was also used by many other civilians who had no ties to ISIS members. We collected the names of 40 people, including 15 women and 16 children, who died in the strike. The total number of civilian casualties, people who buried the dead told us, was much higher.

We shared our findings with the coalition, including the names of many of the victims, but the coalition has not investigated further or changed its assessment of the strike. It has maintained the position that it articulated last July, when it said that “after review of available information and strike video it was assessed that there is insufficient evidence to find that civilians were harmed in this strike.” We never found out how the coalition collected its information or why it decided there is insufficient evidence.

The UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria, set up to investigate violations of international law in Syria since 2011, issued its latest periodic report on March 6 and came to a conclusion similar to ours about civilians being harmed in the Mansourah strike. After interviewing 20 witnesses, they found that the information they collected “does not support the claim that 30 ISIL [Islamic State] fighters were in the school at the time of the strike, nor that the school was otherwise being used by ISIL.” The commission found that out of 200 residents in the school, 150 were killed and identified 12 survivors, including 4 women and 6 children.

In light of these additional findings, the US-led coalition should revisit its assessment and agree to conduct a full and transparent investigation of its Mansourah strike. The coalition should use the full range of investigative tools, including interviews with victims and their families, as well as local residents. Such an investigation is not only important for the victims but is also essential to better understand what precautions the coalition took to protect civilians in its anti-ISIS campaign in Syria and Iraq.

We still do not know the civilian death toll of the anti-ISIS campaign, but the information gathered by independent on-the-ground investigations, including the New York Times report “The Uncounted,” suggest that the numbers of victims in Iraq are far higher than the Pentagon has estimated or reported. On a recent visit to the city of Raqqa, local residents told me that hundreds of bodies of civilians killed by coalition airstrikes still lay under the city’s rubble.

The fact that the fate of civilians in the Mansourah strike – and in many other strikes – continues to be shrouded in a “fog of war” and bureaucratic denials almost a year after the attack is striking given that the coalition’s partner forces have been in control of these areas for months. Witnesses are available for interviews, bodies are accessible to be counted. The ongoing denials show, at best, an indifference to the plight of the civilian population.

This attitude by the coalition is shortsighted. The fact that the coalition is more transparent than the Syrian or Russian air force should not be a source of comfort. The Pentagon does have procedures in place that it could activate to look more closely at what happened in Mansourah. The question is whether US officials are willing to revisit the case to take into account the new available information.

I heard US officials repeatedly mention the importance of winning hearts and minds in the battle against ISIS. Opening a full investigation into the Mansourah strike before the anniversary of the attack would be a step in the right direction.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am