The National Human Rights Commission, NHRC, has declined the request by the Department of State Security Service to have its officials testify in secret in the ongoing enquiry into the killing of eight squatters in a building in the Apo area of Abuja.
The squatters, mostly tricycle riders and petty traders, were killed on September 20 by a team of soldiers and SSS operatives in a pre-dawn raid.
The security agencies later claimed the victims were suspected terrorists who first attacked officials, a claim faulted by witnesses and residents of the area who described the attack as unprovoked; and the victims as homeless tricycle riders and petty traders.
The NHRC last week began hearing into the killings.
There were reports after Monday’s sitting that the human rights commission okayed an application by the SSS for a secret testimony by its operatives at its headquarters in Abuja.
But PREMIUM TIMES has since learnt that that report is incorrect.
An official of the commission told this newspaper Thursday morning that the SSS would testify in the open at the NHRC headquarters on January 7.
The official, who requested not to be named because he was not authorised to speak on the matter, said, “The SSS sought to testify in secret alright but no, it is not true the Commission granted it. On the contrary, we required them to testify in the open and their evidence is to be taken on 7 January beginning 11 am at the Council Chamber in the Commission’s headquarters.
“What happened was that at the sitting on Monday, they made a composite application: one, to testify in closed session and two to have the testimony of other intelligence assets under custody of the SSS but relevant to the case to be taken at the SSS headquarters where they are held.
“The commission made a ruling denying their request to testify in closed session. The ruling is brief enough but one of the reasons we cited was the fact that they have already addressed the media on this.
“But we granted the request for intelligence assets as well as exhibits under their possession to be initially examined at their place.”
PREMIUM TIMES later obtained a full text of the commission’s ruling on the application.
It reads, “We have a composite oral application by the Department of State Services (DSS) with two prongs: one to take the DSS’ testimony in these hearings in camera; the other to relocate to the DSS Headquarters in Abuja to view exhibits and take evidence from some intelligence assets in the custody of the DSS. Counsel representing the DSS cites national security as the reason for this application.
“Rule 66 of the Standing Orders and Rules of Procedure (STORP) of the Commission require the Commission to apply the rules of fair hearing. Specifically, Rule 66(1)(a) of the STORP requires us to be “fair and just”. Rule 67(1) empowers the Commission to “authorize in its discretion such measures as may be necessary for the protection of parties, victims, evidence, witnesses or any participants in the complaints process.”
“This Panel is mindful of the sensitive circumstances of this case. We are equally mindful of the need for confidence in this process of fact finding and in the institutions of safety, security and access to justice in Nigeria. We are also mindful that the DSS has already addressed the press on the operation the subject of the current proceedings and that the Chief of Army Staff and the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA), with whom the DSS had close co-ordination in these operations have already testified in public.
“In our view, it is in the interest of all the parties and of justice to take the testimony of the DSS in these proceedings under oath and in public.
“With respect to the testimony of the intelligence assets and the inspection of the exhibits in the custody of the DSS the Panel rules that we shall inspect and examine those where they are in the custody of the DSS and in the presence of the petitioners or their legal representatives as the Panel may determine. All persons whom the Panel may authorize to attend the inspection, not being staff of the DSS or members of the Panel or staff of the Commission shall, prior to the inspection, make and subscribe to an oath of confidentiality in terms of the Oaths Act.”
Also at Monday’s sitting, The Nigerian Army described the killings as unfortunate.
The Commander of the Brigade of Guards, Emmanuel Atewe, who represented the Chief of Army Staff, described the killing as unfortunate.
“The Apo incident was unfortunate. The security agents acted proactively to prevent an incident which would have caused panic in Abuja,” Mr. Atewe was quoted as saying by Channels Television.
He said that there was strong evidence that the building was inhabited by terrorists, noting that the military troops always exercised restraint in their operations and had no reason to kill civilians in any operation.
“Our troops have no reason to kill anybody in covert operations; we always exercise restraint. The Apo incident was an isolated incident. Evidence abound that there were terrorists in the building,” he said.
On Thursday, December 19, families of the victims and the Chairman of the National Tricycle and Motorcycle Association, Usman Gwoza, gave the Federal Government a 72-hour ultimatum to pay N500 million compensation fee with a public apology to the victims’ families.
Mr. Gwoza said the victims were innocent and not members of the dreaded sect.
He also demanded an unconditional release of other members of the association detained by the SSS.
However, Chairman of the Human Rights Commission, Chidi Odinkalu, who heads the investigation committee, asked the tricycle association to withdraw the 72-hour ultimatum to enable a smooth investigation of the incident.
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