The militants were freed by the government earlier this month in exchange for the release of four people, including a French aid worker, two Italian nationals and a prominent Malian opposition leader, who had been held captive by an al-Qaida-affiliated group in northern Mali.
While local rights groups have welcomed last week’s release of the four individuals, they also believe that freeing a large number of “presumed terrorists” could pose a further threat to Mali’s stability and undermine the country’s judicial system.
This release “means that the fundamental rights of those murdered by jihadists in Mali have been violated, while (their relatives) were waiting for justice to take its course,” said Aguibou Bouare, president of the National Human Rights Commission in Mali.
“These people were released even though they have committed crimes,” he told VOA, adding, “Not complying with the rule of law, gives birth to impunity.”
Mali has been struggling to contain a growing Islamist insurgency that began as a separatist uprising in the north in 2012, which was later taken over by jihadists. The conflict has also spread to central Mali and neighboring countries such as Burkina Faso and Niger.
The violence has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.
Accountability for abuses
Adotei Akwei, deputy director for advocacy and government relations at Amnesty International, said while they have been urging governments around the world to release prisoners because of the overcrowding and the risks presented by coronavirus pandemic even before the recent releases in Mali, they also have been advocating for accountability for those responsible for human rights abuses.
“We are concerned over the possible release of persons who need to be held accountable, or else there will be no incentive to change behavior by those released or by the captors,” he told VOA.
Moctar Mariko, president of the Malian Human Rights Association, said Malian authorities should make real efforts “to free other civilians and military personnel kidnapped or detained by jihadists in order to avoid this selective discrimination and double standards justice towards hostages.”
He told VOA that releasing jihadist militants this way “would encourage and increase cross-border crime,” adding that, “Those individuals will still commit robbery, make improvised explosive devices and continue their organized crimes against peaceful citizens.”
Skilled militants released
Experts say some of the jihadists freed in the recent prisoner swap are battle-hardened fighters with years of combat experience.
“We have identified some of them who are seasoned commanders that could perform important functions in the near future,” said Heni Nsaibia, a researcher at the conflict monitoring group Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project (ACLED).
“There is a high probability that these militants would go back to the insurgency, taking into consideration that the government’s hold of the northern and central parts of Mali is very tenuous,” he told VOA.
Militants have a history of kidnappings in Mali targeting prominent local leaders and foreign nationals, experts say, to extort concessions from the Malian and foreign governments.
For example, Sophie Petronin, the French aid worker released in the prisoner exchange, was kidnapped by Islamist militants in 2016 in northern Mali where she had been working to assist orphaned children.
The recent release of jihadists “essentially incentivizes this type of behavior, specifically among these groups who are quite highly skilled and trained, and have experience in conducting kidnappings,” said Ryan Cummings, director of Signal Risk, a security risk management firm based in Cape Town, South Africa.
“It does certainly send a message out to jihadist groups in the region that ‘if you engage in kidnapping for ransom and extortion, you will be rewarded, and concessions will be provided over the longer term,’” he told VOA.
Opportunity for reconciliation?
Some experts say the release of these jihadists could be a sign for a negotiated political process between the central government in Bamako and jihadist groups. Others, however, believe that jihadist militants are less inclined to engage in a dialogue with the government.
“I’m not sure that jihadists would particularly embrace a dialogue with the Bamako government, unless it conferred a sort of short-term tactical advantage,” said John Campbell, a senior fellow for African policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
Earlier this year, former Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who was ousted in August in a bloodless military coup, had expressed his readiness to hold talks with Islamist militants, particularly those affiliated with the al-Qaida-linked Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), an alliance of several jihadist groups.
Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, said there are mainly two reasons that JNIM would not participate in any negotiation with Malian authorities.
“The first one is a very long history of Bamako breaking promises in its talks with various northern groups, not just jihadis but also particularly Tuareg groups,” he told VOA, noting that the other reason is “there is now a military dominated government in Bamako.”
“I think the new government would be less trustworthy than the previous one from a northern perspective,” Campbell added.
And from the military perspective, analyst Cummings said, initiating peace talks with jihadist militants is not realistic at this point.
“If anyone is not to be interested at this stage in peace with jihadists, it would be senior members of the military who have been — for lack of a better word — the primary victims of jihadist violence in the country,” he said.
This week, suspected Islamist militants carried out multiple attacks in central Mali, killing at least 25 people, including 12 civilians and 13 soldiers.
VOA’s Bambara service contributed to this report.