Prisoners of Mali war in legal limbo

Tuareg group clueless about what to do with suspected Ansar al-Dine fighters they are holding in a makeshift prison.

In the searing noon heat of April in northern Mali, you can see mirages of lakes dancing around buildings with trees in the distance.

We are in Kidal, one of the least accessible towns in the area. It’s closer to Algeria than to central Mali.

The Tuareg rebels recently inherited the town from the al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Dine group, who occupied it for almost a year.

Ansar al-Dine, one of the several groups seeking to establish Islamic law across the entire country, was flushed out from cities by French air bombardment and pushed to the mountains of “Tigharghar” on the border with Algeria.

During the battles that followed the French military campaign, the fighters of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) knew that they had to side with the French or pay a heavy political price for siding with al-Qaeda and its subgroups.

So as the French fighter jets dropped bombs on suspected hideouts of Ansar al-Dine and its allies, on land the Tuareg chased the fighters, who kept fleeing one area for another, not only losing the cities that they controlled in the process but also some of their safe havens in the mountains.

Bleak building

In the process, the MNLA captured dozens of suspected fighters. Nowadays, the Tuareg group keeps the men in a bleak, unfinished building on the eastern outskirts of Kidal.

A visitor to this makeshift prison is struck not only by the number of detainees who are underage but also by the relaxed approach of the prison guards.

The men can be found scattered across the building, mingling with their guards who sometimes leave their guns unattended.

One prisoner is sitting next to a guard washing his clothes. Another is collecting scattered pieces of coal and firewood to bake wheat flour in the sand to make bread.

The detainees greet us warmly and welcome our request to film and interview them.

A few minutes into the inteviews, the initial suspense and fear that came with walking into a building expecting to see faces of professional killers has faded away.

The place has more of a refugee camp feel about it than that of a prison.

Tuareg concerns

Even so, the local Tuareg rebel commanders are not without their concerns.

Sidi Mohamed, the top Tuareg security officer from the powerful Ifoghas tribe dominant in Kidal, keeps minute-by-minute contact with the guards inside. Driving a military 4WD pickup vehicle, he personally checks on the place several times a day.

Mohamed told me the Tuareg have a real problem in their hands. He said the Tuaregs don’t have a proper judicial system to put the detainees on trial. They also do not have enough means to keep sheltering and feeding the former fighters.

Yet they cannot simply release the men, concerned that some of them have dangerous plans to pursue. The MNLA cannot and does not want to hand the prisoners to the Malian authorities.

The French interrogated the men one by one in the facility a few weeks ago. But they don’t seem to be interested in having any inmate extradited to Paris for trial, Mohamed said.

The accusations against the prisoners are very broad in nature, ranging from carrying weapons and fighting to establishing Islamic law.

None of them seem to have been personally caught in an act of killing. Half a dozen or so seem to be underage.

Wrong place, wrong time

Omarou, who gives his age as 15 years, says he and his fellow young inmates joined the Movement for Unity and Jihad (MUJAO), an ally of Ansar al-Dine, a few months ago – to learn the Holy Quran.

In the meantime, they were given some training in the use of light weapons in a special training course. But they insist they have never carried weapons for the purpose of fighting or killing in the ongoing conflict.

Others, like Ahmed from the town of Khalil near the border with Algeria, say they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

He says his brother’s car was confiscated by Ansar al-Dine who took it to the nearby mountains. Ahmed decided to follow them and seek the return of his brother’s car when the French air raids began.

He left the place but says that while on his way back to Khalil, he was seized by Tuareg fighters.

Among the detainees there are some who seem to have inconsistent stories. Consider Al-Ayneen.

Shifting accounts

At the beginning of the interview, he says he is a mujahid (fighter), armed and ready to fight as a member of Ansar al-Dine.

However, a little later, he says he joined the group not out of conviction but as a business facilitator and that his objective was to make money from the relationship.

An inmate called Malik is more straightforward. He says Ansar al-Dine came to his city of Timbuktu where he had been working as a welder.

They asked him to join in order to help them establish Islamic law. He accepted the offer and worked with the so-called Virtue Police, a special unit entrusted with making sure civilians were adhering to the strictest recommendations of sharia.

But he was surprised by the turn of events since January when the all-out war broke out, Malik says.

He now aspires to get his freedom and go back to his welding job in Timbuktu.

Guantanamo parallel

The indefinite incarceration of the 48 suspected fighters by the MNLA poses several questions.

Why is no one apparently willing to take custody of these men?

If they are indeed dangerous individuals, why are they are not being tried and given the punishment they deserve?

On the other hand, if the men are not dangerous and no specific accusations have been levelled against them, why does no one want them to be released?

These questions seem to echo the issues raised about the inmates of the US-run Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba.

Indeed, this unfinished building in Kidal that houses suspected al-Qaeda-linked fighters is a mini-Guantanamo in the sense that both the prisons exist in legal limbo.