BAMAKO Mali's former junta chief, General Amadou Sanogo, has been detained and charged with complicity in kidnapping after being questioned by a judge on Wednesday, the government said on state television.
Sanogo was taken into custody by soldiers earlier on Wednesday, the defense ministry said. He had failed to heed summons to appear in court for questioning over the deaths of six soldiers and a missing colonel during an army protest in September.
Human rights organizations have criticized the Malian army for excessive violence and accused them of torture and enforced disappearances in the West African country.
"(A Bamako court) laid charges against Amadou Haya Sanogo who has been placed in custody," Mahamane Baby, spokesman for the government on state television said late on Wednesday.
"What the defendant is currently being accused of is complicity in kidnapping," he added.
Mali's newly elected President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita is under pressure to restore the state's authority over the army, which overthrew President Amadou Toumani Toure last year, plunging the country into chaos.
Controlling the army, along with regaining control of the north, which was occupied by separatists and Islamists rebels until a French-led intervention in January, are widely considered Keita's two biggest challenges.
A spokesman for the group of soldiers involved in last year's coup declined to comment on Sanogo's detention.
A judiciary source said earlier on Wednesday that Sanogo had been charged with murder although this could not be confirmed with official sources.
He added that authorities had also questioned Sanogo over army violence linked to a counter-coup shortly after he seized power in March 2012 and suspicions of financial crimes related to money transfers from the government.
"He needs to account for the use of sums that he received from the defense department," he said, asking not to be named.
It was not immediately clear if the financial probe was linked to a report released this week by Mali's auditor general which found that 49.4 billion CFA francs ($102.12 million) had been lost in 2012 to fraud and mismanagement.
The hearing took place on Wednesday in the Faladie Gendarme training college of Bamako and not the regular court for security reasons, an army officer said.
After ceding power under intense international pressure last year, Sanogo, then a captain, headed a committee tasked with reforming the army. The new government removed him from that post in August but he retained his rank as general.
Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, called the detention of Sanogo "hugely significant" and said Mali's legal system had demonstrated considerable courage questioning such a powerful figure.
"But many other victims of abuses by all warring factions during Mali's recent armed conflict await justice," she said.
Birama Cisse, a shopkeeper in the capital Bamako, welcomed the news that Sanogo had been forced to appear before a judge.
"Like all Malians, General Sanogo is not above the law. He must respond to the court summons and this should be an example to others," he told Reuters.
But others in the capital, where many supported his coup due to frustrations over corruption and the lack of progress under Toure, expressed concern that the detention could result in an army backlash at a time when Mali is still seeking stability.
"I'm afraid that this hearing will lead to a mutiny in the army. He has supporters," said student Mamou Diabate.
While it revamps its army, Mali is still struggling to cope with al Qaeda-linked rebels, who were scattered by French forces in a January intervention but are still launching sporadic attacks in the country's north.
Two French journalists were abducted and killed by gunman in the north Malian town of Kidal earlier this month. ($1 = 483.7260 CFA francs)
(Reporting by David Lewis in Dakar and Adama Diarra in Bamako; Writing by Emma Farge; Editing by David Lewis and Lisa Shumaker)