It is often very difficult to file Boko Haram-related suits in volatiles states of Northern Nigeria.
A Maiduguri based lawyer has said that lawyers may approach the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) court in Ghana to compel the Joint Task Force, JTF, in Borno State to release detained civilians held in military dungeons.
Speaking with Premium Times, Bala Hassan said the cases of human rights abuses by the JTF have been on the increase in Borno. He said that hundreds of innocent civilians are presently held in military cells for months without being charged to court.
“Many persons, young and older, who are innocent are still locked up in detention cells in the barracks for months, some have degenerated in health, others have died due to sufferings,” said Mr. Hassan.
Mr. Hassan, a former General Secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, Borno State Branch, claimed that “many innocent persons are being mopped up almost on daily basis alongside Boko Haram suspects. And even after JTF confirms their innocence, they don’t release them. On many occasions lawyers do go to JTF for the detainees to be released or charged to court.
“The soldiers either demand fees as a precondition for the release of the innocent detainees or tell us to our faces that they don’t go to court,” said Mr. Hassan.
The lawyer said it is often very difficult for the bar to file suits that have to do with Boko Haram or related cases of soldiers abusing human rights in volatiles states of Northern Nigeria and get them successfully prosecuted.
“Our challenge is the dangers of filing the cases in our courts here,” Mr. Hassan lamented. “You get harassed and threatened from all angles. For a lawyer to successfully file a suit on matters like this, you have to go to safer states in far South or East. Besides even some of the judges wouldn’t want cases that have to do with Boko Haram or military brought to their courts.”
“So we have resolved to take our cases and file in ECOWAS courts either in Ghana or any of the Anglophone West African states; there we are sure of justice without hitches,” he added.
Mr. Hassan explained that the ECOWAS courts command similar influence like normal Federal High Courts in Nigeria. Any accused or defendant could be served a notice of summon through any of the local Federal High Court judges in Nigeria who would endorse the documents and enforce the summon.
“The defendant has no option but to appear in the ECOWAS court!”
PREMIUM TIMES gathered that the NBA, Borno State branch, had in January written to the JTF seeking that innocent detainees be released or charged to court, even as they threatened to institute a mass action on human rights violation at international courts.
“We have given them enough time and very soon we have no option than to go to the ECOWAS court in Ghana to file our case against the JTF,” Mr. Hassan said.
The Deputy Director, Civil Military Relations, Ademola Onitiju, who visited Borno State recently on a civil-military relations mission, told journalists that the detainees can only be released after the military has satisfied all procedure of investigations.
“There are circumstances under which they (detainees) were arrested and I do not have the facts before me as it is now. I cannot be a good judge of why they should be released instantly. As military, we go by the rule of law that is why we want to go to the regular courts,” he said.
“And to justify the status of those that were arrested,” Mr. Onitiju added, “the only way we could do that is to ask questions and relate the circumstances of their arrest with what is obtained as evidences which would then be put across to the appropriate authority for prosecution, which, of course are the regular courts!
‘It is like a sort of exigency, if you like, to arrest and detain them; it is not our province to do that. Please, note that, we do not arrogate to ourselves the power of life and death. These are unusual circumstances! The police, whose primary responsibility is to maintain law and order could no longer do so! And you could bear testimony that they have even become objects of attacks for the terrorists. So, ours in the military is just to complement, which we have done,” he added.
The Commissioner for Justice and Attorney General of Borno State, Kaka Shehu, recently told journalists in a press conference that his ministry is aware of the alleged cases of military harassment and illegal detention of citizens without trial.
“We have heard cases of arbitrary arrests and detention by the JTF and as a government that cares, we have also attempted to intervene by establishing a desk to tackle alleged cases of illegal arrests and detention in the Ministry of Justice where people could come forward to make complaints. But, unfortunately, people are not coming up to make complaints. Though the JTF is here to ensure peace, we still could take up established cases with them to ensure that illegally detained persons are freed. But our hands are tied due to lack of information from the public,” said Mr. Shehu.