from Africa in Transition

Detainees Suspected of Ties to Boko Haram Begin Secret Trials

October 12, 2017

A prisoner, suspected of being a member of insurgent group Boko Haram, in the field base of Chadian soldiers in Gambaru, Nigeria, February 26, 2015. Thousands of others have been arrested and detained indefinitely in the fight against the terrorist group. Emmanuel Braun/Reuters
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Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Sub-Saharan Africa

The Nigerian security services have imprisoned thousands of people suspected of being tied to Boko Haram. The detentions began in earnest in 2011 and accelerated up until 2015, after which they appear to have declined. In June 2015, Amnesty International estimated that the security services had arrested up to twenty thousand people since 2009, and in the two years since the report was issued, presumably thousands more have been detained. Few have access to a lawyer, only thirteen have been put on trial, and of them, only nine were convicted. Prison conditions are appalling. Amnesty International estimates that seven thousand have died in detention since 2011, and the security services have extra-judicially murdered an additional twelve hundred. Bad prison conditions have been a characteristic since the colonial period; most inmates die of disease or inadequate food and water. To survive, an inmate must usually have access to family members who can supply food and water, but with massive and arbitrary arrests, families often do not know where their members are being held.

However, the number in detention without being charged may soon be reduced. On Monday, the Ministry of Justice reportedly began trials of over sixteen hundred detainees, all but around forty of whom are men. Each one will be tried separately by one of four judges assigned to the trials, which will be conducted in secret.

Legal experts already have questions about trial procedures and rules concerning evidence. Detainees have been held without charge for years, and there is anecdotal evidence that interrogations, when they actually took place, involved torture, likely compromising any testimony or confessions. At best, the security services have limited forensic capacity and, because the trials will be conducted in secret, outsiders will be unable to evaluate their fairness. There are also serious questions about the capacity of the legal system to try so many accused.

With such difficulties, the trials could result in mass acquittals. If, however, there are mass convictions instead, there will be even more questions about whether legal and evidentiary procedures were followed.

Though this is merely the beginning of the process, and one already rife with potential problems, the trials are an important step forward toward addressing the large number of people held indefinitely and without charge. 

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