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Nigeria: At least 115 killed by security forces within four months in country's southeast - Investigation

More than 500 arrested after police and military raids

Catalogue of human rights violations and crimes committed under international law in Imo, Anambra and Abia states

Allegations of torture and ill-treatment include secret detentions, extortion, burning of houses, theft, and extrajudicial executions of suspects

Nigerian security forces have committed a catalogue of human rights violations and crimes under international law in their response to spiralling violence in Southeast Nigeria - carrying out a repressive campaign since January which has included sweeping mass arrests, excessive and unlawful force, torture and other ill-treatment, said Amnesty International.  

Nigeria’s government has responded with a heavy hand to killings and violence widely attributed to the armed group calling itself Eastern Security Network (ESN), the armed wing of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), a pro-Biafra movement.  

According to government officials, the ESN killed dozens of security operatives and attacked at least ten public buildings, including prisons and police stations, from January to June. In response, security forces comprising military, police, and Department of State Services (DSS) have killed dozens of gunmen, as well as civilians, where attacks have been committed.  

Eyewitnesses told Amnesty that the security forces have used excessive force, physical abuse, secret detentions, extortion, burning of houses, theft, and extrajudicial executions of suspects.  Human rights groups estimated that the death toll of violence between January and June 2021 in Anambra, Imo, Abia, and Ebonyi states might run into the hundreds. The police said ESN fighters killed 21 of its personnel in Imo state alone.  

Investigation: Killings, torture and arbitrary arrest

Amnesty carried out an extensive investigation to document the human rights violations and crimes under international law in Anambra, Imo, Ebonyi and Abia states from January this year.

It documented 52 incidents of unlawful killings and 62 cases of arbitrary arrest, ill-treatment and torture. Media reports, video and audio recordings reviewed show that the Nigerian security forces also employed excessive force and other unlawful means to address the rising violence. 

Amnesty documented at least 115 persons killed by security forces between March and June. Many of the victims’ relatives told Amnesty that they were not linked to the militants that were attacking security agents.  Injured victims were placed at government hospitals in Imo and Abia state and, according to several hospital sources, all victims had bullet injuries.

In two of the cases documented, the individuals were targeted with no apparent justification:

  • Uguchi Unachukwu, a German-based businessman was killed by soldiers on 31 May at a checkpoint near Owerri airport on his way out of the country. The police are yet to investigate the crime.
  • Mathew Opara, a 45-year-old businessman, was shot by soldiers on 25 May in Orji, near Owerri. Witnesses told Amnesty that he was returning from work when he ran into a team of soldiers in armoured vehicle and Hilux vans shooting at residents. He was shot in the chest and could not receive immediate medical help because of the violence.  His family said the military acknowledged the killing but did not launch an investigation or offer any apology.

Arrested for birthmarks and tattoos

In May, the Imo state government announced the arrest of at least 400 people allegedly linked to the violence. Amnesty’s investigation suggests that most were randomly picked up in their homes and off the street and had nothing to do with ESN. Some victims told Amnesty that they were arrested while walking in the street, at a public bar or simply for having birth marks or tattoos on their body.

A 37-year-old man who was arrested by the police at Orji, in Imo state, on 26 May told Amnesty that he was arrested because his colleague had a birthmark on his shoulder. The police said the mark was a sign of membership of IPOB. 

He said: “The police arrested us on the road. They asked us to lie down on the road.  They checked our clothes to see if we have tattoos. I had none but one of us had a birthmark. He tried to explain but the policemen started beating him. They tied our hands backwards and took us in their van to the police station.”

Another 36-year-old man told Amnesty: “I was arrested on my way back from work. The policemen put me in a bus along with other young men including several students and an NYSC member in his uniform. They labelled us ESN members and took us to their station at the Fire Service. We were severely beaten. They said they will waste [kill] all of us. I told them that I work for the state government. I was asked to pay N20,000. I negotiated and finally paid N15,000. They allowed me to go at about 10.30pm. I do not know what happened to the other people.”

On 23 July, soldiers from the 82 Divisional headquarters of the Nigeria Army, Enugu, invaded Akpawfu, Amagunze and Akpugo communities in Enugu state and arrested at least 20 residents after gunmen killed five soldiers and burnt their vehicle near the community days earlier.

Eyewitnesses told Amnesty that dozens of soldiers moved from house to house, arresting youths on suspicion that they had links with ESN militants.  

Osai Ojigho, Country Director at Amnesty International, said:

“Our evidence paints a damning picture of ruthless excessive force by Nigerian security forces in Imo, Anambra and Abia states.

“What is needed is an impartial and open inquiry to determine what happened and bring to justice all those suspected of criminal responsibility in fair trials before ordinary civilian courts and without recourse to death penalty.”

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