former coup leader general Amadou Haya Sanogo arrives for his trial in Mali on November 30, 2016 (Photo: Twitter/@Justice_Mali)

Sanogo trial has Malians spellbound

15 December 2016 by Abdoulaye Guindo in Mali

During December 2016, the Malian authorities put on trial former coup leader General Amadou Haya Sanogo along with 17 other military men for their roles in kidnapping and killing 21 elite Malian soldiers who had been accused of leading a counter-coup against Sanago and his followers.

Abdoulaye Guindo, a journalist with Malian daily online Proces-Verbal, has been covering justice efforts in Mali for many years. But this trial was different from any other he has covered.

This trial got many Malians clinging to their radios every day in order to have information on everything that was going on in the Bamako courtroom. To imagine someone so senior being held accountable for their alleged crimes, had Malians in towns and the countryside fascinated.

Outside the court, the atmosphere was tense, as both sides - the accused and the relatives of the victims - had mobilized supporters. The relatives of the victims got visibly upset, while the general's followers chanted his name and called for his release. The police had to intervene to disperse the crowds. They even seized a giant poster bearing the image of general Sanogo.

Most of the details of the case had already been documented through the prosecutor's office investigations. After a failed counter-coup against general Sanogo on April 30, 2012, led by the parachutist commando regiment, some 80 were captured and a group of them were later paraded on national television. Late in the night on 2 May, 2012, 21 of Sanogo’s prisoners, known as the Red Berets, after their regiment's signature head gear, were taken away in a truck, executed and buried in a mass grave.

On the day of execution of the 21 Red Berets, by a miracle, one parachutist, Mohamed Diarra, was taken off the truck by a friend and replaced by Aboubacar Kola Cissé. The very lucky Diarra heard from his friend what had happened and was the first to testify about the execution of his companions. Following his testimony, in July 2012, the Public Prosecutor opened an investigation. Several officers and non-commissioned officers, all members of the organisation behind the military coup in March 2012, were charged with kidnapping.

The accused include General Amadou Haya Sanogo, who had declared himself Mali’s head of state during a short-lived overthrow of president  Amadou Toumani Touré , and other officers. Two of the accused non-commissioned officers, Mamadou Koné and Fousseyni Diarra, gave the examining magistrate, their own detailed account of the place where the victims were buried during their preliminary appearance in 2013. Investigating magistrate Yaya Karembé ordered an exhumation in the vicinity of the village of Diago not far from a cement plant by the agents of the forensics investigation team of the national gendarmerie. Twenty-one sets of  human remains were discovered in a mass grave. Medical examinations and DNA tests carried out by the US-based Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) confirmed they are the bodies of the 21 Red Berets that had disappeared.


Tensions run high in the courtroom

At the start of the trial on November 30 the atmosphere was tense in the courtroom. The relatives of the victims, had wanted the trial to be held so that truth would finally be heard and the culprits condemned. General Sanogo's supporters dismiss the case as a political trial and accuse the government of bias, pointing out that the head of the Red Berets who launched the counter-coup is not on trial.

A central question in the case is the extent to which general Sanogo himself was involved in the killings. The indictment against him states that he played an active role in the management of the detainees as coup leader. At least one witness alleged Sanogo was informed about all the Red Berets detained. And the general also appeared in person on television to talk about the captive Red Berets. The prosecution also alleges that only he had the necessary authority to give instructions to execute the Red Berets.

Captain Amadou Konare, Sanogo’s second in command, is accused of being an accomplice. One of the witnesses and a main alleged accomplice turned insider witness, Mamadou Koné, told the investigating judge in December 2013 that Amadou Konaré must have known of the existence of the "list of Red Berets to be executed".

Fousseyni Diarra, Mamadou Koné and Tiemoko Adama Diarra – all members of the military junta running the country during March and April 2012 – have admitted to driving the Red Berets to Diago and having shot them at point blank range. They also say that they got away from the scene of the crime very quickly, because they feared other soldiers could come to execute them in turn, in order to erase all trace of the crime.

Even though some Malians still see Sanogo as a hero for his intervention in overthrowing the then unpopular president, the image of the nation’s military is now badly tarnished.

Lawyers for the accused had asked for a delay – which the judges granted – meaning the supporters of the general and his co-accused feel they have won the first battle.

The delay is because the investigating judge had appointed the US Embassy in Mali to exhume the bodies in Diago and analyse them. But the embassy subcontracted the work to the FBI, who in turn subcontracted to a team of Portuguese doctors - which was not what the investigating judge had ordered. None of these experts had taken the legally required oath. Therefore, the expert report was found to be unlawful by the court and cannot be used as evidence. The court ordered a new expert report from a local laboratory and gave them 45 days to file it.

Some Malians had wanted the Sanogo file to be transmitted to the International Criminal Court, which had been mandated by the Malian authorities to investigate serious crimes from July 2012 [IJT 196]. But the Attorney General at the Bamako Court of Appeal , who is part of the national prosecutor's office, explained the Mali had declared itself competent to judge the Sanogo file, so it was not necessary to hand it over to the ICC. This is complementarity in action. Malians are beginning to understand that it is only when the national jurisdiction declare itself incompetent that the ICC should intervene.

This trial is very different from any other I’ve covered in Mali. Apart from that of former president Moussa Traoré, this trial is the first ever to accuse senior army officers. And never before were Malians tried for the kidnapping and murder of 21 soldiers. The government hesitated a long time before putting General Sanogo and his co-accused on trial. But they have had to do so, in order to bring justice to the victim’s relatives, and because the crimes were so grave. This trial may mean that this kind of killings will never again be repeated in Mali.

Abdoulaye Guindo (@abdoulayekn1) was part of a visit by journalists to the ICC assembly of Staties Parties in November organised by International Justice Tribune in collaboration with the Hague Project Peace and Justice, supported by the Dutch ministry of Foreign Affairs.  

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