Global human rights NGO Amnesty International has annoyed the Nigerian police by exposing the shocking level of unlawful police killings in the west African country, in a new report released on Wednesday 9 December 2009.
“The Nigerian police are responsible for hundreds of unlawful killings every year,” claimed Erwin van der Borght, Director of Amnesty International’s Africa Programme.
He continued: “Police don’t only kill people by shooting them; they also torture them to death, often while they are in detention.”
Van der Borght added: “The majority of the cases go un-investigated and the police officers responsible go unpunished. The families of the victims usually get no justice or redress. Most never even find out what happened to their loved ones.”
Police frequently claim that the victims of shootings were ‘armed robbers’ killed in ‘shoot-outs’ with the police or while trying to escape custody, says Amnesty. These claims are often highly implausible.
As an example, the human rights group cites the case of fifteen-year-old Emmanuel Egbo, who was killed by a police officer in Enugu in September 2008. According to witnesses, he was playing with other children in front of his uncle’s house when three police officers came up to them. One officer pulled out a gun and shot the boy, claiming he was an armed robber. He was unarmed.
In August 2009, his family discovered his body had disappeared from the mortuary. As of November 2009, the body is still missing.
Amnesty International say that some police officers see the killings of ‘armed robbers’ in detention as acceptable practice.
In June 2009, the organisation visited the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) detention centre in Abuja, which is located in a disused abattoir outside the city.
Suspects are held in a vast warehouse previously used for slaughtering cattle. Chains are still hanging from the ceiling. When Amnesty International delegates visited the building, about 15 people were held in cells. Amnesty International delegates counted at least 30 empty bullet cases scattered on the ground.
Unofficially, a policeman told Amnesty that many “armed robbers” are taken there and shot.
The NGO says that one of the main problems is ‘Nigeria Police Force Order 237’ under which police officers are allowed to shoot suspects and detainees who attempt to escape or avoid arrest – whether or not they pose a threat to life.
“Force Order 237 is so impermissibly broad. It simply gives police officers permission to shoot people. It is against international standards, and is being abused by police officers to commit, justify and cover up illegal killings,” explained Amnesty's Erwin van der Borght.
He continued: “The government must repeal Force Order 237 and publicly announce that the use of lethal force is only allowed when strictly unavoidable to protect life. This simple step could make a big difference to the number of unlawful police killings we are seeing in Nigeria.”
Enforced disappearances in Nigeria are rife. Typically, in the first days or weeks following arrest, families are allowed to visit their relatives in detention. Later on, police tell them their loved ones have been “transferred to Abuja”. At other times, they will simply deny any knowledge of their whereabouts.
The Nigerian government says that they do not condone extrajudicial killings. But Amnesty International says they are not doing enough to stop them and to bring the police perpetrators to justice. Even on the rare occasions when police officers implicated in an unlawful killing are prosecuted, they are often released on bail or escape custody. Some are simply transferred to other states.
Meanwhile, the Nigerian Police Force (NPF)itself appears intransigent and unrepentant. According to ThisDaily online, the NPF has "berated" Amnesty for its report. Force public relations officer Emmanuel Ojukwu said: “We say 'no' to this report and do so aggressively. If we do not defend ourselves, then you will be dealing with a deaf and dumb police. The theme of the report is very provocative.”
Amnesty will not back down. “Ending unlawful killings and enforced disappearances by the police will require serious legal reform and commitment and support from the Nigerian police force,” said Erwin van der Borght.
He added: “The Nigerian Police Force must introduce a new code of conduct throughout its chain of command – from the very top to the bottom. If not, the cycle of violence will simply continue.”