Human Rights Watch(HRW) said that Nigeria’s prosecution of suspected Boko Haram members has been characterised by serious legal shortcomings and that the authorities are failing to prioritise prosecution of those most responsible for the group’s atrocities.
HMW stated that in October 2017, authorities began trials of Boko Haram suspects, some of whom have been detained since the conflict began in 2009, adding that most of the 1,669 suspects prosecuted so far were charged with providing material and non-violent support to the group.
It added that people and communities victimised by its brutal attacks have been excluded from observing or testifying in the legal proceedings.
Speaking on the matter, Nigeria Researcher at Human Rights Watch, Anietie Ewang, said, “Nigeria needs to pursue justice for those responsible for Boko Haram’s atrocities and end the prolonged detention of thousands of suspects.”
“However, to achieve justice and deter extremist attacks, the Nigerian government’s overall strategy and trial procedures need to conform with constitutional safeguards and international standards,” he added.
HRW said that the first round of trials, in October 2017, involved 575 defendants and was shrouded in secrecy, drawing concerns about fair trial and due process issues from several rights groups, including the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Subsequent rounds in February and July 2018 at Wawa Cantonment, a remote military base in Kainji, Niger State, the group said were open to a few monitors from nongovernmental groups and some media personnel.
Human Rights Watch posited that in the third round, which it monitored on July 9 and 10, over 200 defendants, including three women, were tried for offences under the Terrorism Prevention Amendment Act of 2013 and that three judges of the Federal High Court presided over the trials in small makeshift courtrooms on the military base where the suspects had been detained.
The courts, HRW said convicted 113 defendants, acquitted 5 and discharged 97 without trial based on the court’s determination that they had no case, adding that nine cases were struck out due to errors, some of which caused defendants, who had been tried and convicted or discharged in previous rounds to be inadvertently brought to trial again, and nine more were adjourned for further trial in Abuja.
HRW further informed that in 7 of about 60 cases it monitored, Federal Justice Ministry prosecutors brought charges for murder, kidnapping, and other crimes, including during gruesome attacks in Damaturu, Bama, and Baga in 2015, and the abduction of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok in April 2014 but that most defendants were prosecuted solely for providing “material and non-violent support” to Boko Haram, including by repairing their vehicles, laundering their clothes, or supplying them with food and other items.
According to HRW, “The proceedings were very short, with some lasting less than 15 minutes, raising several fair trial and due process concerns. Most charges were couched in ambiguous and vague terms without the crucial information Nigerian law requires, like the specific date, place, and details of the alleged offence. Other procedural lapses included a lack of official interpreters and the use of untrained unofficial interpreters, reliance on alleged confessions, charging previously discharged defendants again for the same offences and unclear orders for rehabilitation for some defendants, whose releases were ordered.”
All the suspects, HRW stated had public defenders and that some defendants told the group that they had not been able to consult with their lawyers until the day of trial.
According to HRW, a 28-year-old woman charged with concealing information, providing support and knowingly aiding and abetting the kidnap of children by Boko Haram told Human Rights Watch that she had not been allowed to contact any member of her family to prepare a defence since she was arrested in Kaduna in 2013. She was found guilty and sentenced to time already spent in detention.
Some suspects, HRW said were tried individually, but others were tried in groups, in some cases without consideration of whether they had been coerced into committing the offence for which they were being tried or had done it simply to survive.
The volume of defendants in the “material support” category, HRW further said made it difficult to focus available resources on prosecuting those charged with more serious offenses, a few of whose cases were deferred for further trial in Abuja.
In one of the cases, HRW said a defendant accused of failing to provide information to the authorities regarding the activities of Boko Haram mechanics told the court after pleading guilty that he could not report because his community was under the control of Boko Haram, and there was no way to access the authorities, adding that it previously documented forced recruitment of students, teachers, and others at the peak of the Boko Haram insurgency.
It added that although the courts discharged 97 defendants and acquitted five more in the July trials, there are fears that they might not have been released and that several people ordered released in the previous trial rounds were arraigned for the same charges in July, apparently inadvertently.
Speaking further HRW said that on July 25,it sent its findings to the justice ministry, the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria, a government-funded public defense agency and the National Human Rights Commission, seeking a response to questions and concerns about the fair trial and due process irregularities observed.
Human Rights Watch said it also inquired about the time and opportunities for the defendants to build their defense and the failure to release people acquitted or discharged in previous rounds of the trials.
HRW stated that the Legal Aid Council in its response said its lawyers had met with all the defendants before and during the trials, stressing that participation in a de-radicalisation programmr aimed at deterring individuals from violent extremism was compulsory for all defendants, and that their fate after the trials was the responsibility of the attorney general and national security adviser.
However, in what appears to be a contradiction, the Federal Justice Ministry told Human Rights Watch the ministry’s role was strictly prosecutorial and it had no information on the release or rehabilitation of defendants.