in Burkina, the distress of the families of prisoners

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Ouagadougou, October 26. This woman has not heard from her husband since 2019. Without proof of life or death, it is impossible to mourn.

Mariam * no longer dared to believe in this reunion. For five months, she had counted the days spent away from her 22-year-old son, detained in the high security prison (PHS), on the outskirts of Ouagadougou. This Saturday in October, when she finally found him, sitting under a tin canopy among the prisoners, she swallowed back her tears. She didn’t want to hurt him and waste their fifteen minutes, the time allotted for family visits to the facility.

She spoke quickly, reassured him about the state of the crops and about his young wife, telling him that she had not canceled their union. She would have liked to know what he ate in prison, to take his hand, but she did not dare, because of the guards nearby and the recorder lying on the table. ” Following ! “, cut a supervisor. Mariam just had time to give her a bag of new clothes before leaving with a heavy heart.

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Outside, squatting in front of the red brick walls protected by barbed wire and watchtowers, dozens of families have been waiting their turn since dawn: a young man who has been patient for four hours and has traveled 220 km to visit his “54 year old dad” ; two women, their babies behind their backs, adorned with floral dresses for their husbands; an old lady, who came like every Saturday to bring “A pot of rice, onions and a little hope” to his two sons, detained for three years. Others still arrive, crammed into rickety green taxis which leave quickly because of the cameras. Every weekend, it’s the same ballet.

Between hope and anguish

In front of this fortress built in the middle of nowhere, a piece of ocher earth strewn with abandoned concrete blocks, there are those who continue to hope for a liberation or a trial and those, plunged in anguish, who watch for a sign of life from their brother, husband or son. In Burkina Faso, many families have lost contact with their relatives who have been arrested by the security forces during anti-terrorist operations. These then often find themselves detained at the PHS pending a dismissal or a trial.

“Many were arrested in the bush and were taken away without being able to notify those around them, either because they lost their phone or it was confiscated, or because they did not memorize their numbers”, explains lawyer Ambroise Farama, who passes ” months “ to look for relatives in the offices of the investigating judges of the anti-terrorism pole or on prison lists full of homonyms, before finding their trace.

In detention, suspects do not always have access to a landline. However, international law requires that families be able to know their fate and that each party to an armed conflict and the competent authorities provide all the information they have about them. Since 2019, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has registered more than 800 requests to search for missing persons in Burkina Faso.

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On June 5, Mariam’s son left by bicycle to buy a plow in town. He never came back. She had told herself that she would never see him again, like her husband, who had vanished two years ago. Until she received a call in August from an unknown number. At the end of the line, the voice of his son. “I’m alive, come to Ouaga”, he whispered. The milk seller drew on her small savings to pay for the bus, a day’s journey from her village near Toéni (north-west), more than 200 km from the capital. “I never knew why he was arrested”, she assures, denying any acquaintance of her boy with jihadist groups which continue to tighten their grip on the north of the country.

This Saturday, she came with a photo of her husband to show it to the guards. The last time she saw him was in June 2019, before this 56-year-old cattle seller left for the market like every day. She waited for him all night at home. The next day, at the Toéni gendarmerie, he was told that he had been “Arrested and transferred to the capital”. Mariam looked everywhere. At the Ouagadougou remand and correction center and at the PHS. Nothing.

“The luckiest are in prison”

Without proof of life and death, mourning is impossible for families plagued by uncertainty. Especially since the accusations of abuses by the security forces are increasing in the country. “The lucky ones are in prison, otherwise many suspects have been executed on the ground by the army”, points out Ali Sanou, secretary general of the Burkinabé Movement for Human and Peoples’ Rights (MBDHP).

Since 2015, the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) has recorded 700 cases of extrajudicial executions. On May 11, 2020, twelve terrorist suspects in police custody were found dead at the Tanwalbougou gendarmerie (east). HRW also denounces many cases of abusive detention, whereas in Burkina the duration of police custody cannot theoretically exceed fifteen days, with a possible extension of ten days for acts of terrorism.

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Issa * experienced these captivities indefinitely in 2019. This 47-year-old breeder and farmer claims to have been kept ” four months “ by the soldiers after being arrested on the road to Tougan (north-west) by “Three armed and hooded men”. He was reportedly transferred from the local gendarmerie “At the Toéni du Garsi camp”, the Rapid Action Group for Surveillance and Intervention in the Sahel, funded and trained by the European Union.

“We were squeezed into a small cell, there was no place to lie down, I was accused of being an accomplice of the terrorists and they threatened to kill me”, affirms this former detainee met in Ouagadougou, who will then pass “A week with a hooded head” in another cell in Dédougou (north-west), before being released on the order of an examining magistrate, for lack of evidence against him.

Faced with all these disappearances without return to her village, Fanta *, she believed that her little 30-year-old brother ” was dead “. She hadn’t heard from her since his arrest in 2018, while he was on the road to study in Mali. She thought he had been killed by the security forces, like her other brother, “Executed at home in his sleep”, breaths, in fulfulde, this 46-year-old woman, sitting on a stool in a cousin’s living room, in Ouagadougou. So, after two years of silence, when residents of her village just released from the PHS told her that they had seen the young man in their cell, she found it hard to believe them.

Relatives fear being stigmatized

Since then, Fanta, who says she does not know the reasons for his detention, has been one of the few in the family to go see him, “Every six months” about, the time to put some money aside to buy him “A few bags of rice”. The detainee has not seen his parents, his wife and his four children, who have remained in their village in the Sahel region (north), for three years. For lack of papers, they have “Fear of being arrested” on the road, too, on their way to the capital.

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Like them, many families fear making the trip to the PHS, nicknamed by some “The jihadist prison”, and to be stigmatized. “It has happened that men come to visit their relatives and are locked up at the same time”, says Fanta’s cousin. Ten of their family members have already been arrested, but none have had access to a lawyer. “Nobody wanted to defend them, they say they are afraid”, saddens the old man, who reports having contacted ” About ten “ of cabinets.

In Burkina Faso, few lawyers agree to defend terrorism cases. And the only ones who do so practice often prohibitive prices for poor families, which can range from 1 to 10 million CFA francs (from 1,500 to 15,000 euros) for the entire procedure. “These are complex cases, which can last for years, and we also have to pay for our security”, argues a lawyer.

* The first names have been changed.

Summary of the series “Burkina: a punishment against terrorism”

The feeling of injustice continues to worsen in Burkina Faso, where jihadist attacks, intercommunal reprisals and abuses blamed on the security forces have left more than 3,700 dead since 2015, according to the latest count from the NGO Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (Acled).

Faced with the spiral of violence, the families of the victims demand the right to the truth and to compensation. But in the field, the investigations are long and tedious. Between security threats and the lack of resources, the magistrates of the specialized pole are struggling to carry out their mission. In the meantime, around 900 suspected terrorists are crowding into the cells of the country’s high security prison, near Ouagadougou.

While on August 9, for the first time in six years, five jihadists were sentenced in the country, The World Africa investigated the difficulties of anti-terrorism justice and the path of detainees and their families.

Episode 1 Judges “overwhelmed” by jihadist violence
Episode 2 Abu Fadima, the first jihadist sentenced in Burkina Faso
Episode 3 The distress of the families of prisoners