The head of the Malian junta, Colonel Assimi Goïta, on Friday pardoned the 49 Ivorian soldiers arrested in July and sentenced by the Malian courts, after months of tension between Bamako and Abidjan.
These Ivorian soldiers had been arrested in Mali, described as “mercenaries”, then charged in mid-August with “attempt to undermine the external security of the State” and imprisoned. Three of them, women, were released in mid-September.
On December 30, the Malian justice had condemned these women to the death penalty in absentia, and the 46 soldiers still detained to twenty years of criminal imprisonment.
“Colonel Assimi Goïta, President of the Transition, Head of State, has granted his pardon with full remission of sentences to the 49 Ivorians sentenced by Malian justice”, according to a statement released Friday evening by the government spokesperson, Colonel Abdoulaye Maiga.
The text specifies that these soldiers had been sentenced for “crimes of attack and conspiracy against the government, attack on the external security of the State, possession, carrying and transport of weapons and munitions of war or defense intentionally in relationship with an individual and collective enterprise whose purpose is to disturb public order by intimidation or terror”.
Bamako accused these Ivorian soldiers of having traveled under false identities and with weapons without the authorities having been informed.
Since July, Côte d’Ivoire has been demanding the release of its soldiers, categorically denying that they were “mercenaries”, claiming that they were on a mission for the UN, as part of logistical support operations for the Minusma.
The Malian junta has erected this affair into a manifestation of the sovereignty which it says it has made a cardinal principle vis-à-vis France, pushed towards the exit, of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS ) and even the UN stabilization mission (Minusma).
– “Friendship relations” –
The pardon was granted a week after a visit to Bamako by an official Ivorian delegation, which met the Malian authorities in a “fraternal” atmosphere. The Ivorian Minister of Defense then assured that the case was “in the process of being resolved”.
The grace comes “to reinforce the dynamic created” by the agreement signed that day by the two countries to promote “peace” and the “strengthening of relations of friendship, fraternity and good neighborliness” between them, underlines the Mali press release.
At the beginning of December, the leaders of the West African states (ECOWAS) had set an ultimatum to the Malian junta, demanding that it release the 46 Ivorian soldiers still detained before January 1, on pain of sanctions.
The Malian junta let this deadline pass. In his end-of-year speech, the head of the Malian junta did not mention the Ivorian soldiers. At the same time, Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara had promised his fellow citizens that the imprisoned soldiers would return “soon to Ivorian soil”.
On Wednesday, the current president of ECOWAS was conciliatory, assuring that there would be no immediate sanctions against Mali despite the expiration of the ultimatum, to let the Togolese mediation work on the release of 46 Ivorian soldiers.
Togolese President Faure Gnassingbé was meanwhile visiting Bamako, where “he pleaded for a presidential pardon”, an official from the Malian presidency told AFP.
In this case, the UN had recognized “dysfunctions” in a note addressed to the Malian government and admitted that “certain measures were not followed”.
The Ivorian presidency had also recognized in September “shortcomings and misunderstandings”, remarks willingly considered on the Malian side as the apologies he demanded.
But relations were strained again a week later when the junta openly linked the release of the remaining 46 soldiers to the extradition of Malian figures living in Côte d’Ivoire.