UN official accuses France of impeding inquiry into journalists' Mali deaths

Agnès Callamard says justice is being denied over killings of Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon in 2013

The United Nations’ special rapporteur for extrajudicial killings has accused the French military of hampering an investigation into the murder of two journalists in Mali in 2013.

Agnès Callamard says the French authorities are hiding behind claims of threats to national security secrecy and contravening international law in failing to arrest and question suspects in the case.

In a 30-page letter sent to the French authorities and seen by the Guardian and the French news website Mediapart, Callamard says the military is using defence secrecy rules to block investigators from establishing the truth.

“Seven years after the events, justice is being denied,” Callamard, who is French, writes. “I am particularly surprised by the fact that although the identity of the suspects has been known for several years – and this despite the imposition of defence secrecy on certain important aspects of the investigation – no international arrest warrant, particularly for Mali, has been issued.

“According to the information obtained, the Malian authorities have never been formally asked to proceed with an arrest or extradition,” she adds.

Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon were in northern Mali preparing a series of reports for Radio France International (RFI) before legislative elections when they were kidnapped outside the town of Kidal on 2 November 2013.

Jihadis bundled them into a pickup truck and drove off. The vehicle was found abandoned shortly afterwards with the bodies of Dupont, 57, and Verlon, 55, nearby. Both had been shot.

The official version given by French authorities in the area at the time was that the vehicle broke down and the attempted kidnap by a group linked to al-Qaida went wrong, prompting the terrorists to kill their hostages. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) claimed responsibility for the killings.

A judiciary investigation was launched in France, as happens whenever a French citizen is murdered abroad, but the suspected masterminds behind the killings remain free and the exact circumstances surrounding the journalists’ deaths are unclear.

An investigation by RFI revealed that the kidnappers were chased by a French special forces helicopter, which the families were not told, and that regular French forces who were in the region as part of Operation Serval, which aimed to push back Islamist forces threatening to overrun the capital, Bamako, discovered the bodies.

Callamard says allowing the suspects to continue walking free “poisons our societies”. She has demanded to know the exact circumstances in which the pair were killed, who was present before, during and afterwards, and whether French forces failed in their duty by not warning the journalists of increased tensions and risks in the area.

She described the French authorities’ response to her letter, which rejected her accusations and pointed out that the killings were still under investigation, as “incomplete, patronising and rather insulting … particularly for the victims”.

“This case is heartbreaking and has reached a complete impasse some eight years after the killings took place,” Callamard told the Guardian. “The French military is doing nothing to assist the [legal] process. Quite the contrary. They have impeded the search for truth at every turn, from the very beginning, either through their lies or by using the law on national security secrecy.

“The suspects, including the masterminds, have been identified. The main mastermind of the abduction of the journalists was involved in major negotiations last autumn, leading to the release of four hostages, against 200 prisoners and a large sum of money.”

Last year, Dupont’s mother, Marie-Solange Poinsot, 90, accused the French army of hiding important facts, lying and lacking humanity in not telling the families how the journalists were killed. “When they told us what happened, some things didn’t add up,” she said. “The truth won’t bring them back but it will ease our minds a little.”

She and the Verlon family have criticised the silence of the French authorities over the circumstances of the killings. Verlon’s daughter, Apolline, has written to President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte Macron, asking for the truth to be revealed so the families, friends and colleagues can have some closure.

“It’s quite unbelievable that to this day we have still not found the truth. It’s really important that we understand the mechanics of how this impunity occurs,” Callamard said. “The default position of the French military is to be silent and to not cooperate. In this case they even lied about who was on the ground at the time. If France had been open from the start of this case, things would have progressed so much better. So much energy has been expended in trying not to provide evidence and in arguing for the classification of the information as a defence secret.”

She added: “From the families’ standpoint the most hard and painful aspect is that the man who was the mastermind of the [kidnap] operation is now a key go-between for the authorities in Mali. This man has not been arrested and he has been paid as a go-between. So here you have the progressive rehabilitation of the mastermind of this attack.

“Everyone is convinced we have the right man. Some of those who were behind the killings have been ‘neutralised’, I believe is the term used, by French forces. But doing this isn’t getting to the truth of what happened and it isn’t justice for the families.”

The Elysée said all necessary documents relating to the case had been transmitted to the French investigating judge. The defence ministry did not respond to requests for information from the Guardian and Mediapart.

Callamard is due to leave the UN and has been named as the new head of Amnesty International.

Contributor

Kim Willsher

The GuardianTramp

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