They Said They Went to Mali to Keep the Peace. Now They’re Jailed as Mercenaries.

DAKAR, Senegal — A court in the increasingly isolated West African nation of Mali sentenced 46 soldiers from neighboring Ivory Coast to 20 years in jail on Friday, after the military junta that runs Mali accused them of being mercenaries.

The government of Ivory Coast said the soldiers were in Mali to support the United Nations peacekeeping mission, a force of 15,000 members that has been there for almost a decade to protect civilians from violent Islamist groups. But the Court of Appeal in Mali’s capital, Bamako, convicted them of crimes including conspiracy against the government, after a closed trial that lasted a day and a half.

Mali, home to ancient empires and centers of learning, earned praise from Western countries just a decade ago as a beacon of stability and democracy in the region. But the arrest and trial of the soldiers from the Ivory Coast is only the latest indication of the strained relations between Mali and its neighbors, international partners and even the U.N. mission tasked with restoring stability.

“It is a difficult decision to bear,” said Moussa Traoré, the representative of Ivory Coast’s ruling party, who was in Bamako after the proceedings ended. “These are soldiers who are in the regular army of Ivory Coast.”

The soldiers were sentenced to 20 years in jail and fined more than $3,000 each. Three female soldiers, who were arrested along with their male colleagues but later released, were sentenced to death in absentia — the maximum penalty, given because they did not appear for their hearing in court.

The 49 soldiers were arrested in July and later charged with trying to undermine the external security of the state, conspiracy against the government, and carrying heavy weapons with the goal of disturbing public order. They were held in jail while Malian officials put the case together.

The trial of the 46 men started on Thursday, three days before a deadline set by ECOWAS, the West African regional organization. ECOWAS had imposed sanctions on Mali in January after its military leaders delayed elections, but then lifted them in July when a shorter election timetable was announced.

If the soldiers are not released by New Year’s Day, ECOWAS said in early December, it would impose new sanctions.

The Court of Appeal in Bamako, Mali, where the trial of the 46 Ivorian soldiers arrested in Mali took place.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Since soldiers overthrew Mali’s government in August 2020, and then ousted its interim civilian leaders in May 2021, the country has turned increasingly inward. It has been heavily criticized by its neighbors; has fallen out with France, its erstwhile military partner in the fight against jihadism; and its president was one of a handful not to be invited to the recent U.S.- Africa leaders’ summit in Washington.

Mali has been battling extremists since 2013, and despite the longtime intervention of France and other nations, as well as the presence of the U.N. mission, its military has little control over vast swathes of the countryside.

The long-running conflict was one of the junta’s major justifications for overthrowing the government, along with Mali’s years of bad governance and corruption. But since the military took over, the security situation in the country has further deteriorated, according to the U.N. expert on the human rights situation in Mali.

The Malian junta has begun working with the Russian mercenary group Wagner, according to researchers, analysts and foreign officials, which has led to reports of massacres and other human rights violations. Mali denies any partnership with Wagner.

The United Nations mission in Mali is largely made up of troops from other African countries. Its largest contingent comes from Chad, and of the top 10 contributors of soldiers, all but two — Bangladesh and Germany — are African countries.

But the mission appears to be in trouble, analysts have said. Ivory Coast informed the U.N. in November that it would withdraw its 900 troops. Then the United Kingdom followed suit, citing Mali’s partnership with Wagner. Sweden, Germany and Benin have said they will leave, while Egypt is apparently also considering pulling out.

Officials with the U.N.’s Department of Peace Operations did not respond to questions about the soldiers on trial.

The detention and trial of the soldiers from the Ivory Coast was a popular move in Bamako, and has helped generate support for the military government, said a civil society leader based in Bamako.

“In Bamako the population definitely agrees with the fact that they are mercenaries,” said Doussouba Konaté, the country director of Accountability Lab Mali, an anti-corruption organization.

A demonstrator waves the Russian flag during a protest against the United Nations and France and in support of Russia during Independence Day celebrations in Bamako in September.Credit…Hadama Diakite/EPA, via Shutterstock

She said that Malians felt it was an indication that impunity was no longer tolerated.

“Now we have a government in place that yes, has not been elected, that lacks legitimacy, that probably does not have all the skills to run a country such as Mali — but just this kind of action shows us that we’ve started a new process,” she said. “We’re not the country we were.”

Mali released three female Ivorian soldiers from detention in September. They were flown home and received an ecstatic welcome from family members on an airport tarmac.

“Of course, we’re waiting for the 46 others,” said Fidèle Sarassoro, the Ivorian president’s chief of staff, after greeting the three soldiers.

But the Malian junta made clear that it wanted something in exchange for them.

In September, the Nigerian foreign minister traveled to Mali to meet the head of the junta, Col. Assimi Goïta, and advocate for the soldiers’ release. According to Malian state media, Colonel Goïta indicated that if Mali were to release the remaining peacekeepers, it would require “compensation” — the junta wanted Ivory Coast to hand over the Malian politicians it was sheltering who were members of the government it had overthrown.

Even as Ivory Coast demanded the return of its soldiers, it “continues to provide political exile for certain Malian personalities who are the object of international arrest warrants issued by the courts,” the Malian state broadcaster quoted Colonel Goïtaas saying. He said they took advantage of Ivory Coast’s protection to “destabilize Mali.”

Mali’s interim leader, Colonel Assimi Goïta, at an Independence Day military parade in September.Credit…Ousmane Makaveli/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

These “personalities” included Karim Keïta, son of the ousted president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, as well as Tiéman Coulibaly, who served as Mr. Keïta’s foreign and defense minister.

This month, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on the younger Mr. Keïta, who, it said, used his position to receive bribes and embezzle government funds, and allegedly arranged the torture and murder of a Malian reporter who was investigating him for corruption.

“Through his father, Keïta allegedly arranged to remove from their positions officials who did not support his corruption,” the Treasury announcement read. “Keïta also ostensibly arranged bribes to support his father’s re-election.”

Malians had long accused the younger Mr. Keïta of wrongdoing. When his father was overthrown, protesters broke into Karim Keïta’s luxury home in Bamako, filming each other jumping into his swimming pool. Mr. Keïta denied the Treasury Department’s allegations.

The elder Mr. Keïta was hospitalized soon after being ousted, and died in January, 2022.

Even though the soldiers were convicted on Friday, they could still be freed, an Ivorian political analyst said. The possibility that Colonel Goïta could pardon and release them was “very likely,” said the analyst, Geoffroy Julien Kouaho.

Ruth Maclean reported from Dakar, Senegal, Mamadou Tapily from Bamako, Mali, and Loucoumane Coulibaly from Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

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