Did govern­ment sum­mar­ily kill 21 sus­pects de­tained by SSS?

Daily Trust - - LAW REPORT - By Joseph Ot­teh and Rita Patrick

On Sun­day March 30, 2014, about 21 per­sons sus­pected of be­long­ing to the Boko Haram sect were killed and many oth­ers wounded dur­ing a re­ported jail­break at the Asokoro head­quar­ters of the Depart­ment of State Se­cu­rity in Abuja.

The of­fi­cial ac­count of the in­ci­dent as re­ported in the me­dia is that a de­tainee struck an op­er­a­tive who had brought break­fast with his hand­cuff. The re­port did not say whether the hand­cuff had been locked around the de­tainee’s wrist or had been unlocked. It did not say the ex­tent to which the ac­tion of the de­tainee threat­ened the life or safety of the op­er­a­tive, and whether the de­tainee suc­ceeded in dis­pos­sess­ing the op­er­a­tive of his weapon if s/he car­ried one. The state­ment fur­ther said that bul­lets were fired at the de­tainee, but did not say what other de­tainees did to de­serve be­ing fired at or killed. Some me­dia re­ports quoted Ms. Mar­i­lyn Ogar, Deputy Di­rec­tor, Pub­lic Re­la­tions, of the State Se­cu­rity Ser­vice, as say­ing that “... the at­tempt by the de­tainee to es­cape made other SSS op­er­a­tives on guard to fire shots to pre­vent oth­ers from es­cap­ing.”

A lit­eral in­ter­pre­ta­tion of this state­ment is that other de­tainees who posed no dan­ger to the DSS or its op­er­a­tives, or, who, in fact made no at­tempt to es­cape from de­ten­tion were fired at to pre­vent them from even con­tem­plat­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of flee­ing! Is this what hap­pened?

Pre­ven­tive shoot­ing, or, ac­tu­ally, pre­ven­tive killing!

No clear jus­ti­fi­ca­tion has been pro­vided by the DSS or the Nige­rian State for the killing of such a mul­ti­tude of vul­ner­a­ble de­tainees. We pose many ques­tions to the SSS: Where were the de­tainees when they were fired at? Out­side of their en­clo­sures or within? Within the precincts of the DSS fa­cil­ity or out­side? At what point were they fired at, and with what pur­pose? To res­train their flight or to an­ni­hi­late them? Then, who fired at them? The DSS/SSS or the soldiers who came to as­sist them? Were they fired at to avoid po­lit­i­cal em­bar­rass­ment? Did they all die im­me­di­ately af­ter the shoot­ing or were in­jured per­sons given med­i­cal as­sis­tance? There has been no clear, forth­right, con­vinc­ing and con­sis­tent state­ment from the DSS, SSS or govern­ment to jus­tify this mas­sacre.

Any­one as­so­ci­ated with the Boko Haram sect would or­di­nar­ily face con­sid­er­able pub­lic prej­u­dice given the hor­ri­fy­ing atroc­i­ties at­trib­uted to the group; yet, it is this neg­a­tive per­cep­tion that ren­ders both them (as well as those wrongly as­so­ci­ated with them) so vul­ner­a­ble to per­se­cu­tion, to be­ing silenced, bru­talised or vi­o­lated capri­ciously. The death of any­one as­so­ci­ated with this sect must be sub­ject to the tough­est scru­tiny to avoid people get­ting away with clear homi­cides only by the sheer un­pop­u­lar­ity of the vic­tims’ as­cribed la­bel. And yes: Nige­rian law en­force­ment and se­cu­rity agencies do un­der­stand how to lever­age on un­pop­u­lar stereo­types and how lit­tle sym­pa­thies ex­ist for people as­so­ci­ated - truth­fully or falsely - to re­viled groups. We see this ev­ery time, every­where. They abound with the po­lice rou­tinely say­ing those they ex­tra-ju­di­cially killed were armed rob­bers who were try­ing to flee from the law, and to re­fresh our mem­ory with a no­to­ri­ous piece of his­tory, we re­call the Apo 6. We see the Joint Task Force (JTF) say­ing that those it killed in Baga, Maiduguri last year were ter­ror­ists, when it fired in­dis­crim­i­nately at un­armed civil­ians in re­venge for the killing of an Army Lieu­tenant or Lance Cor­po­ral. Our se­cu­rity forces, overwhelmed by the es­ca­lat­ing af­front of ex­trem­ist groups are, no doubt, un­der pres­sure, and have re­peat­edly acted with im­punity and com­mit­ted grave crimes against many in­no­cent people, in a largely un­chal­lenged way.

Re­ports of ex­tra-ju­di­cial, sum­mary ex­e­cu­tions by govern­ment forces are clearly in­ten­si­fy­ing and, to some ex­tent, dele­git­imis­ing what ought to be a cred­i­ble fight against ter­ror­ism. There is some ad­vo­cacy to take govern­ment forces to the In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Court (along with Boko Haram fighters) be­cause our govern­ment will not rein in way­ward, il­le­git­i­mate vi­o­lence meted to in­no­cent vic­tims by its se­cu­rity forces.

We can­not af­ford to be quiet when the State kills in cir­cum­stances like this, notwith­stand­ing the ex­trem­ism and vi­o­lence of armed groups that has brought much gut-wrench­ing blood­shed and dis­lo­ca­tion to our coun­try. Our an­swer to ex­trem­ist de­prav­i­ties can­not mir­ror and re­pro­duce the brutish­ness and mind­less­ness we con­demn, for then, we can’t say we have set a stan­dard by which we are en­ti­tled to judge and con­demn oth­ers, for we can be no dif­fer­ent from those judged. But more than that, we run the uni­ver­sal risk of ex­pos­ing in­no­cent people suf­fer­ing to the in­jus­tice of stig­ma­ti­sa­tion and vic­tim­i­sa­tion from mis­la­belling. That stig­ma­ti­sa­tion has of­ten led to many deaths, un­fair, un­for­tu­nate deaths. Nel­son Man­dela, that hero of the anti-apartheid strug­gle, was once branded a ter­ror­ist by the White govern­ment in Pre­to­ria. Had he been killed the way the 21 in­mates in the cus­tody of the SSS were, the world would have been de­nied knowl­edge of the truth of who Man­dela re­ally was. Who is to say whether all of those per­sons in SSS cus­tody were ac­tu­ally Boko Haram mem­bers in a coun­try where people are picked up ran­domly and hauled to face fab­ri­cated crimes? In a coun­try where se­cu­rity agencies are plumb­ing the depths of in­credulity to make dis­torted claims of their progress in win­ning the war against ter­ror­ism?

Pris­on­ers and de­tainees still have the right to life and where there is an at­tempt to es­cape de­ten­tion, their lives can­not be taken whim­si­cally, or as a ret­ri­bu­tion for the at­tempt to es­cape de­ten­tion or cause po­lit­i­cal em­bar­rass­ment. In the con­text of the lo­ca­tion where this es­cape bid was re­port­edly launched, it is un­ten­able to ar­gue that there were no non-lethal means of pre­vent­ing the escapes. The Nige­rian Con­sti­tu­tion guar­an­tees the right to life, and the govern­ment is un­der a con­sti­tu­tional re­spon­si­bil­ity to thor­oughly and im­par­tially in­ves­ti­gate the deaths of any per­sons who die in cus­tody. Many in­ter­na­tional norms and in­stru­ments ob­li­gate Nigeria to un­der­take cred­i­ble, im­par­tial and thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the death of any per­sons who dies in cus­tody. For ex­am­ple, Prin­ci­ple No 34 of the United Na­tions Body of Prin­ci­ples for the Pro­tec­tion All Per­sons un­der Any

Form of De­ten­tion or Im­pris­on­ment pro­vides that:

“When­ever the death or dis­ap­pear­ance of a de­tained or im­pris­oned per­son oc­curs dur­ing his de­ten­tion or im­pris­on­ment, an in­quiry into the cause of death or dis­ap­pear­ance shall be held by a ju­di­cial or other author­ity, ei­ther on its own mo­tion or at the in­stance of a mem­ber of the fam­ily of such a per­son or any per­son who has knowl­edge of the case. When cir­cum­stances so war­rant, such an in­quiry shall be held on the same pro­ce­dural ba­sis when­ever the death or dis­ap­pear­ance oc­curs shortly af­ter the ter­mi­na­tion of the de­ten­tion or im­pris­on­ment.

The find­ings of such in­quiry or a re­port thereon shall be made avail­able upon re­quest.”

We also urge the Na­tional Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion, by virtue of its statu­tory man­date, to un­der­take a thor­ough and in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion into what ac­tu­ally hap­pened dur­ing the jail break and en­sure that the truth is not buried un­der the weight of what is po­lit­i­cally ex­pe­di­ent for the SSS to claim at this time. Af­ter this in­ves­ti­ga­tion, the com­mis­sion should re­fer any mat­ter of hu­man rights vi­o­la­tion re­quir­ing prose­cu­tion to the At­tor­ney Gen­eral of Fed­er­a­tion.

Ot­teh and Patrick are La­gos based lawyers with Ac­cess to Jus­tice

Ms. Mar­i­lyn Ogar

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