Mali trial over 2015 Bamako attacks opens
A Malian court opened proceedings Tuesday against alleged Islamists who are accused of killing over two dozen people in attacks targeting foreigners in 2015, in a rare terror trial in the Sahel state.
The attacks in the capital Bamako were among the first to explicitly target Westerners in Mali, which has been gripped by a brutal jihadist insurgency since 2012.
In March 2015, gunmen sprayed bullets at La Terrasse nightclub and tossed a grenade inside. A Frenchman, a Belgian and three Malians were killed.
Then in November, gunmen took guests and staff hostage at the 190-room Radisson Blu hotel in a siege that left 20 people dead, including 14 foreigners.
On Tuesday, hooded guards led primary suspect Fawaz Ould Ahmed to the dock in a Bamako courtroom where survivors of the attack were present. Elite soldiers guarded the courthouse’s perimeter.
The Mauritanian national is allegedly a lieutenant of the notorious one-eyed Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, investigators say.
He stands accused of personally shooting the victims of the nightclub attack, using an assault rifle, as revenge for French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo publishing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.
Earlier in 2015, Islamist gunmen in Paris killed 12 people at Charlie Hebdo’s offices over the publication of the caricatures.
Investigators also believe that Ould Ahmed masterminded the hotel attack.
The full-bearded suspect, who was dressed in a long traditional grey robe, told lawyers on Tuesday that he preferred to address the court in Arabic.
Family members of the Western victims were not present in court. However, some could follow the proceedings from abroad via live videolink.
The court is also examining charges against two other men besides Ould Ahmed: Malian nationals Sadou Chaka and Abdoulbaki Abdramane Maiga. It is unclear how long the trial will last.
– ‘His little truth’-
Ould Ahmed’s lawyer is Tiessolo Konare, known for his legal defence of the army officer who led Mali’s 2012 putsch, Amadou Sanogo.
“It’s good that he has access to justice,” the lawyer said, referring to the alleged jihadist.
“He will have his (own) little truth to tell,” he said, adding that he had thought the trial would not go ahead.
Terror trials are rare in Africa’s vast and conflict-ridden Sahel region, where borders are porous and state control weak in the face of a widening jihadist revolt.
Mali has been struggling to contain a jihadist insurgency that first emerged in the north, before spreading to the centre of the country and neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.
Thousands of soldiers and civilians have died, and hundreds of thousands have fled their homes.
Jihadists in the Sahel-wide insurgency mainly wage war on soldiers and government officials — both symbols of state power.
– Missing defendant –
But Islamist militants also target Westerners: either kidnapping them for ransom or attacking popular expatriate haunts such as hotels or bars.
Mali’s government this month swapped some 200 detainees — some of them thought to be jihadists — for four hostages held by Sahel Islamist groups.
Sophie Petronin, the last remaining French hostage in the world, was freed as part of that deal.
Maiga, one of the suspects in the trial in Bamako, did not make an appearance on Tuesday, sparking rumours that the government had released him as part of its prisoner exchange.
“They told us about an absence, but we know that he was freed (by the government),” said Alassane Diop, one of the prosecuting lawyers.