The harsh implementation of sharia by the the Islamists during their occupation of northern Mali was no descent into chaos but a planned attempt at state control

There are some decisions that a mother hopes she will never have to make: for instance, would she accept blood money from the man who killed her son?

Hadi Maiga was certain that money would never be able to assuage her grief; and so there she was — a slight woman in a flowing headscarf — in the middle of a vast sun-drenched square on an October evening in Timbuktu watching as the Islamic police led out Moussa Mohammed, the man accused of shooting her son Ibrahim.

Once unshackled, the accused fell to his knees and prayed for what seemed like a long, long time. An Islamic walked up to Ms. Maiga and offered her a gun. She refused to touch it. The gun was handed to her younger son Abdullah who declined as well.

The prisoner stood up from his prayers; an order was given, and a guard from the Islamic police shot him in the back. The prisoner collapsed but staggered back up to his feet so the police shot him again. And to the sand he fell, and there he lay till that night when they brought him to the local hospital.

“Praise the Lord,” said the commander of the Islamic police as the body was wheeled into the morgue. Outside, the rain suddenly pelted down on this town — renowned for its earthen mosques, mausoleums, 333 saints and the solitary djinn.

Before French and Malian forces reclaimed swathes of northern Mali from a ten-month Islamist occupation in January this year, the militants had gained universal notoriety for their radical interpretation and harsh implementation of sharia law.

Sharia implementation

There is no one universally accepted set of sharia as jurisprudence is drawn from the Koran, the word of God; the Hadith, which describes the way of the Prophet; and fiqh, the human interpretation of divine texts. In the post-colonial period, Muslim communities have tended to adopt aspects of sharia into personal and civil law, rather than criminal law.

In Timbuktu, the militants interpreted the sharia as divine sanction to destroy the medieval mausoleums of venerated Muslim saints, burn rare treatises on religion and science, and impose a regime of flogging, amputations and public executions.

Documents recovered from abandoned Islamist buildings, hospital records, and interviews suggest the 10-month occupation was not a descent into anarchy but a lucidly planned, and often terrifying, attempt at realising a vision of a more just, pure, and orderly society.

In August 2012, Ms. Maiga said, her son Ibrahim, a fisherman from the Bozo fishing community, was laying out his nets along the banks of the Niger when Moussa, a Tuareg cattle herder, tried to drive his animals across the river. An altercation ensued and ended when Moussa pulled out a gun and shot Ibrahim three times.

Ms. Maiga didn’t witness the shooting but said several witnesses had accused Moussa of the crime. The Tuaregs, she added, had historically oppressed the Bozo community. In April that year, Timbuktu had been overrun by a separatist Tuareg militia, called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which terrorised the population for two days before being sidelined by a rival militia of Islamists. “If it wasn’t for the Islamists,” Ms. Maiga said in an interview, “the Tuaregs would have killed us all.”

So when she heard that a Tuareg killed her son, she took a ferry up the river to Timbuktu and lodged a complaint with the Islamic police. “They told me to send them a picture of my son, and said they would find the killer,” Ms. Maiga said. The Islamists began their investigation and soon arrested Moussa. “They imprisoned him for three months,” she said, “An Islamist came to our village to make inquiries. Later, lots of people from the village were called to Timbuktu to give testimonies.”

The Islamists also interviewed her, several times, and asked if she would accept blood money as compensation. “I said I didn’t need the money,” she said. Eventually, the Islamists concluded — much like many countries including India — that the punishment for a first-degree murder was death, set a date, and executed Moussa.

Doctor-cum-interlocutor

One of the people present at the execution was Dr. Ibrahim Maiga from the public hospital. “They always called me whenever something was about to happen,” Dr. Maiga said. Two weeks prior to Moussa’s execution, Dr. Maiga was called to the square to stand witness as the Islamists punished a “convicted” thief.

“It was four in the afternoon,” said Dr. Maiga, “The Islamists brought out a man tied to a chair. The man was about 28. They took out a knife and cut off his hand. They then paid 50,000 FCFA [approximately Rs. 5,400] to the thief’s family.”

Dr. Maiga was one of the few people to engage with the militants. In the days they entered Timbuktu, the rebels arrived at his hospital with gifts of an electricity generator, two vehicles, jerry cans of fuel and a demand: They wanted the hospital to follow the sharia with complete separation of the sexes.

“The jihadis are very attached to the sharia; I tried arguing with them, saying ‘A Muslim doesn’t need guns,’” Dr. Maiga said. “They said, ‘all Muslims need guns’ and brought me guns and explosives. I refused, insisting that the weapon of a Muslim is prayer and the adoration of god.”

Moral policing

In Timbuktu, Jenan Moussa, a reporter with Al Aan TV, found a stash of Arabic documents in an office abandoned by the Islamic police and among them, a poster illustrating the proper dress for women. The ideal jilbab, the documents say, must cover the entire body, must not be transparent, fitting, colourful, fashionable, or perfumed. Another document lays out regulations for rebel cadres and forbids them from entering private residences without the permission of the emir and declares that all punishments must be preceded by proper investigation.

The regulations applied to a wide range of social situations, and were strictly codified. They forbade residents from smoking, drinking, wearing jeans or jewellery and travelling on the same donkey, scooter or camel with a member of the opposite sex. While administering a beating to an offender, the document cautions, “our brothers should not use excessive force”.

Yet, ‘excessive force’ was the leitmotif of this regime. Dr. Maiga prepared weekly health reports right through the occupation; read together, they comprise a dossier of daily violence.

“Assault and battery of a man aged 23 and a woman of 18 years, under the sharia,” reads one report in June, while later reports document “a woman in Goundam lashed by armed men”; “Gunshot wound through the chest of a 27-year-old woman in Niafunke”; “assault and battery of a 37 year old man by armed men in Niafunke”; “three cases of assault and battery in Goundam”. The violence escalated with every passing week.

Supporters

The young man and woman mentioned in the June report were severely assaulted for having a baby out of wedlock, Dr. Maiga said; while the 27-year-old woman of Niafunke was shot at close range when the Islamists opened fire on a youth demonstration protesting against the sharia. After a point, he just stopped asking people how they were hurt and simply treated them. But how did the Islamists find out about this baby? “Someone must have told them,” Dr. Maiga said, “They had supporters in the city.”

When the Islamist regime in Timbuktu finally collapsed under the strain of weeks of bombardment by French aircraft this January, their social experiment was falling apart. Dr. Maiga’s records show that the rebels were adopting increasingly harsh punishments to impose their will, even as the city ran out fuel to feed its electricity generators, communication grids failed, and vaccines in the hospital disintegrated in the absence of refrigeration.

Malian Army: Equally brutal

In the third week of January, the militants slipped out of the city in small groups, clearing the way for arrival of the Malian Army — a force accused of arbitrarily executing and “disappearing” its opponents and even killing 20 of its own soldiers for opposing a military coup that toppled the Malian government in March 2012.

Along the river, Ms. Maiga held her one remaining son close as she contemplated her decision to approach the Islamic courts. “He was such a good boy. He wanted to study and become a teacher,” she said of her son, “He had gone to catch some fish for his mother and the Tuareg killed him.”

Did she think the punishment was just? “At the time, it was the sharia,” she said, “It was difficult. I couldn’t speak for two days after the execution.”