Security forces have killed innocent civilians and unarmed men in a crackdown on the radical religious group known as Boko Haram, which reportedly left several hundred people dead in Maiduguri, northeastern Nigeria, residents and human rights activists told IRIN.
“It is unbelievable the way the security forces went about indiscriminately shooting and killing innocent residents of Maiduguri, and members of Boko Haram,” Shamaki Gad Peter, head of Jos-based League for Human Rights told IRIN.
Peter said he has received reports from Maiduguri residents that they witnessed street vendors and passers-by killed in crossfire during fighting between security forces and Boko Haram in recent days, as well as disarmed Boko Haram members being shot dead. Peter said security forces have not made enough effort to identify the targets of their crackdown - Boko Haram supporters wear no uniform and do not carry identity cards.
Over the past week Boko Haram, a radical group calling for strict Islamic rule, has attacked police headquarters in five states, as well as prisons, government buildings and churches, according to observers.
Following clashes between the group and security forces some 4,000 city residents fled to army barracks outside Maiduguri where they are receiving food, water and medicine from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the National Emergency Management Agency, ICRC delegate Ibrahim Aliyu, told IRIN.
A reporter told IRIN that while standing outside police headquarters he witnessed three captured and disarmed members of the sect being shot at close range by security forces.
The police have questioned and released some suspects, according to witnesses. Water-seller Halilu Ibrahim told IRIN he was arrested by police and accused of being a Boko Haram member while on his way to the bus station to flee Maiduguri for his hometown of Azare in Bauchi state. After questioning he was found not to be associated with the group and let go, he said. But he said police warned him to stay indoors. “’You are better off sheltering here…if you go to the mosque, if you go outside, you will be a dead man’”, he quoted police as saying.
When asked if security forces had killed innocent civilians national police spokesperson Emmanuel Ojukwu told IRIN: “We don’t know. There is no way we can identify exactly who is a member of the group…most were not in uniform…some wore red bands. They [Boko Haram] too were killing innocent people. They considered anyone not a member as an infidel who should be eliminated.”
|If you go to the mosque, if you go outside, you will be a dead man|
The government is expected to undertake an inquiry into the shootings, he said.
Boko Haram leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was reportedly killed in police custody on 30 July. Yusuf had been shot in the back of the head from close range, according to a reporter at the scene. Rights activist Peter described the incident as “reprehensible”.
“We expected he would be arrested, interrogated about his sponsors, his cache of arms, or how he went about recruiting young people to join his group,” he said. “And then arraigned and taken to prosecution in accordance with the laws of Nigeria…Killing is not a solution to this problem.”
Authorities said Yusuf was killed in an exchange of gunfire while attempting to escape detention.
Police spokesperson Ojukwu told IRIN: “This group’s agenda is to unseat the government of the day… Any group that attacks a police station is an attack on the symbol of authority of a nation. Those in government cannot allow them to have their way…We have a continuum in the use of force and our actions are commensurate with the actions they have taken.”
He added: “Boko Haram operates with AK -47s assault rifles, they have bombs...They have killed police officers in colleges and establishments. The group is gravely violent. There is no way police action would be less.”
New York-based Human Rights Watch has called for an investigation into Yusuf’s death, which they describe as an “unlawful killing”.
|Each time people attack police and military, there are always strong reprisal attacks to avenge the deaths|
Nigerian security forces have a history of carrying out reprisal killings and use of excessive force, according to Human Rights Watch’s Nigeria researcher, Eric Guttschuss.
In Jos, Plateau state, 133 civilians were killed by police and military forces in communal clashes in November 2008, according to HRW research.
“There is a tradition in northern Nigeria,” Nigerian rights activist Peter said. “Each time people attack police and military, there are always strong reprisal attacks to avenge the deaths.”
Human rights groups say many questions must be answered. “Were the casualties members of Boko Haram?” asked HRW’s Guttschuss. “Were they just individuals found in these neighbourhoods? What are the circumstances of their deaths?”
He added: “Security forces must abide by basic principles of resorting to use of force only when non-violent means have been exhausted, and should respect basic international principles on the use of firearms,” he said. Peter said military and police need better training in this regard.
The League for Human Rights is calling on residents to stand up and tell the authorities they have had enough. “Family members of people who were killed who were not part of the group must speak against this – they should cry foul and demand for justice.”