Torture is practiced so commonly among Nigerian security forces and law enforcement that some detention facilities have "torture chambers" devoted to abusing prisoners, according to a report released Thursday by Amnesty International.
Amnesty researchers spoke with hundreds of Nigerians and documented 500 specific cases of torture over the course of 10 years — painting a picture of impunity run rampant, and an environment where victims have little or no recourse to seek redress from their attackers. A simmering conflict in the northeast with the Islamist militant group Boko Haram has only given greater reign to torturers.
Though Nigeria has signed several agreements banning torture — including the United Nations' conventions — it does not criminalize it domestically. The report cited a dozen common practices it deems torture, including electric shocks, sexual violence, severe beating, and the extraction of nails and teeth from prisoners.
In certain police stations belonging to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad and Criminal Investigation Division, "they have rooms allocated for torture that are clearly called 'torture chambers,' that the police often use," Makmid Kamara, west Africa researcher at Amnesty International, told VICE News. Sometimes the locations are euphemistically given names like "the temple," or "the theater," and violence is coordinated by an official known as "O/C Torture" or Officer in Charge of Torture."
"Victims range from people who have been accused of petty theft to alleged or suspected militants, said Kamara. "It cuts across the various levels of crimes. It's not restricted to just men, either. We have a number of cases of women being sexually assaulted. Some have been raped while in detention."
One woman Amnesty spoke with said a police officer forced her to confess to an armed robbery by shooting tear gas into her vagina.
The randomness of the violence can be startling. According to the report, in March 2013, Mahmood, a 15-year-old boy living in Potisku, in Yobe State, was detained along with several dozen other people, mostly children under 19. The group was taken to nearby "Sector Alpha" military base — so notorious among locals that it is referred to as "Guantanamo." Mahmood was allegedly kept for three weeks, during which time he was "beaten continuously with gun butts, batons and machetes," and had hot "melting plastic" poured on his back. He was made to walk over "broken bottles," and had cold water poured on him. Finally, he was forced to witness the summary execution of fellow detainees. Mahmood was never charged.
Violence against children is not limited to conflict areas. Kamara said in Port Harcourt in Nigeria's delta region, a group of young boys reported being detained and tortured on an almost daily basis.
Nigeria has established multiple committees and parliamentary groups dedicated to security sector reform, but those efforts have amounted to little, says Amnesty.
In response to the findings, the Nigerian police released a statement Monday condemning the report as full of "blatant falsehoods and innuendos."
"We are versed with the international best practices, and the dictates of the Nigerian Constitution as regards human rights," said the document, attributed to Force Public Relations Officer Emmanuel Ojukwu. "The police do not routinely torture suspects, it is not systemic or endemic."
"We do not question the freedom of Amnesty International to earn its relevance and bread," added Ojukwu.
Amnesty reports violence against civilian detainees is particular acute in the country's northeast, where security forces have waged a brutal years-long battle against Boko Haram. In August, the rights group released a video depicting military personnel and state-sponsored militias under the guise of the "Civilian Joint Task Force" carrying out gruesome summary executions in Borno State — holding down and slitting the throats of victims before dumping their bleeding bodies into an earthen pit. Those actions, said the group, amounted to war crimes.
"We know that during the fight against Boko Haram the use of torture widened, and is no longer restricted to police," said Kamara. "Now we see various forms of torture being used by both the police and Nigerian security forces."
Amnesty International has gathered graphic footage which it says provides fresh evidence of war crimes being carried out in northeastern Nigeria.
At least 4,000 people — the bulk of them civilians — have died this year in violence tied to the conflict, doubling the toll from the previous three years, Amnesty said. On March 14, after repelling a Boko Haram attack, the Nigerian military murdered at least 600 mostly unarmed detainees in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, according to Amnesty. Many as Nigerian security forces have detained 10,000 people, many vaguely accused of complicity in Boko Haram's activities, the report said. In areas like Maiduguri, where the militant group enjoys some support, torture is normal practice. With Boko Haram reportedly "surrounding the city," fears abound that skittish military personnel could further lash out at the local population.
The army's brutal and indiscriminate crackdown has only driven more locals, grudgingly, into the arms of Boko Haram, Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, an associate fellow in Chatham Houses's Africa Program who specializes in Nigeria, told VICE News.
"The repression of the Nigerian army has been so harsh that it antagonized the civil society in Borno and led some people to look for protection from Boko Haram," he said. "It's good that the [Amnesty] report comes out now because it shows the military response to Boko Haram, which has involved a very dirty war."
Investigators highlighted "a pattern of inadequate criminal investigations by police and military and a disregard for due process." Inadequately trained police "rely heavily on interrogation and confessions to solve cases and arrests are routinely carried out before investigations," they said. Nigerian police and military personnel were also cited for holding prisoners "incommunicado," with no means to make contact a lawyer or even their families. It is during this period, say observers, that they are most vulnerable.
"Security forces are not held accountable for what they do," said Pérouse de Montclos. "Boko Haram has exacerbated this practice of torture and extrajudicial executions, but you don't need Boko Haram for the security forces to do what they do.
"As far as I'm aware, no soldier or policeman has been jailed for their involvement in massacres" during the conflict with Boko Haram, said Pérouse de Montclos.
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