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HRW said children are held without charge for months or years in squalid and severely overcrowded military barracks, with no contact with the outside world.
It said some were arrested at age five years, with some spending years in military detention.
The 50-Page-report which was made available to The ICIR, titled “They didn’t know if I was alive or dead: Military Detention of children for suspected Boko Haram involvement in Northeast Nigeria”, documents how the Nigerians authorities are detaining children, often based on little or no evidence.
HRW in its report, recommended that Nigerian authorities should immediately release children currently in military custody
The report further stated that children described beating, overwhelming heat, frequent hunger and being packed tightly in their cells with hundreds of other detainees like razor-blades in a pack, as one former detainees said.
The body’s Advocacy Director, Children’s Rights Division, Jo Becker, during a chat with newsmen in Abuja on Tuesday said “children are being detained in horrific conditions for years, with little or no evidence of involvement with Boko Haram, and without even being taken to court”.
According to her, many of these children already survived attacks by Boko Haram. The authorities’ cruel treatment adds to their suffering and victimises them further, she observed.
“The Nigerian government should sign and put into effect a United Nations handover protocol to ensure the swift transfer of children apprehended by the military to child protection authorities for rehabilitation, family reunification, and community reintegration. Other countries in the region, including Chad, Mali, and Niger, have already signed such protocols.”
Between January 2013 and March 2019, Nigerian armed forces detained over 3,600 children, including 1,617 girls, for suspected involvement with non-state armed groups, according to the UN. Many are detained at Giwa military barracks in Maiduguri, the main military detention facility in Borno State.
“In June 2019, Human Rights Watch interviewed in Maiduguri 32 children and youth who had been detained as children at Giwa barracks for alleged involvement with Boko Haram. None of the children said they were taken before a judge or appeared in court, as required by law, and only one saw someone who he thought may have been a lawyer. None were aware of any charges against them. One was detained when he was only 5 years old.”
“Nigerian authorities arrested the children during military operations, security sweeps, and screening procedures for internally displaced people, and based on information from informants. Many of the children said they were arrested after fleeing Boko Haram attacks on their village or while seeking refuge at camps for internally displaced people. One said he was arrested and detained for more than two years for allegedly selling yams to Boko Haram members.”
She also said girls abducted by Boko Haram and forced to become Boko Haram members’ wives, were being maltreated and facing discrimination from soldiers and their communities.
“Approximately one-third of the children interviewed said security forces beat them during interrogation after their arrest or at Giwa barracks.”
Quoting from a detainee, Becker said, “One girl who was forced to marry a Boko Haram member said that after soldiers captured her, “the soldiers were beating us with their belts, calling us names and telling us they will deal with us because we are Boko Haram wives. Others said they were beaten if they denied association with Boko Haram.”
She continues, “Children described sharing a single cell, approximately 10-by-10 meters, with 250 or more detainees. They said the stench from a single open toilet was often overwhelming and that detainees sometimes fainted from the heat. In Maiduguri, the average annual maximum temperature is 35 degrees Celsius and temperatures can exceed 40 degrees.”
“Nearly half of the children said they saw dead bodies of other detainees at Giwa barracks. Many said they suffered frequent thirst or hunger.”
“Fifteen of the children had been detained for more than a year, and some had been held for more than three years. None had been allowed to contact family members outside the detention center, nor had the authorities contacted their families. Such cases may constitute enforced disappearances, a serious human rights violation.”
She further disclosed that the notorious Giwa Barracks in Borno State, has a holding cell for boys under 18 with children as young as 7, or even younger.
“Children said that Giwa has a cell for boys under 18 with children as young as 7, or even younger. The military also detains children in adult cells, where children said food and water were scarcer and conditions even more crowded. Very young children and babies are kept with their mothers and older girls in a separate cell. Three girls said they saw male soldiers making sexual advances toward female detainees or removing girls from the cell for long periods for what they believed was sexual exploitation.”
“The military provides no formal education or rehabilitation activities for children at Giwa. Children reported that their only activities were prayer, watching television, and informal lessons that some children provided for others. The overcrowded conditions made physical activity impossible, and some children said they developed sores from restricted movement.”
“Since January 2013, Nigerian authorities have released at least 2,200 children from detention, but we do not know the current number of children who may still be detained. According to the UN, 418 children were detained in 2018, a significant decrease from 2017, when over 1,900 children were detained.”
“Following their release, some children said they suffered social stigma from presumed involvement with Boko Haram, even if they had no ties to the group. Nearly all said they wanted to go to school, but many said that available schools were too far away, or that they didn’t have money for transportation.”
“Nigerian authorities should immediately release children currently in military custody. If military or intelligence authorities have credible evidence of criminal offenses by children, they should transfer them to civilian judicial authorities to be treated in accordance with national and international juvenile justice standards.”
“Nigeria faces formidable challenges from the Boko Haram insurgency, but detaining thousands of children is not the answer,” Becker said. “Children affected by the conflict need rehabilitation and schooling, not prison.”
But the Nigeria Defence Headquaters in a statement released on September 9, by Onyeama Nwachukwu, Acting Director of Defence Information, denied alleged detention of children in military facilities.
Nwachukwu, a Colonel said HRW report is not only false but capable of undermining the joint efforts of the armed forces and other security agencies to restore peace in the North East.
It said contrary to the allegations, the military actually manages children in the North East theatre as victims of war and not as suspects.
The statement reads, “It is an established fact that Boko Haram Terrorists (BHTs) indoctrinate women and children who they use as suicide bombers in the theatre of operations. In the conduct of their operations troops arrest these children while attempting to detonate explosives and provide tacit support to insurgents such as intelligence on troops movement and deployments.”
“Contrary to HRW claims however, the AFN manages children in the North East theatre as victims of war and not as suspects. Apprehended children are kept in secured places, where they are adequately fed, profiled and de-radicalized before their release.”
“This was evidently captured in the HRW Report, where it stated that “since January 2013, Nigerian Authorities have released at least 2,200 children from detention nearly all without charge. This statement further attests to the fact that the children are released to appropriate authorities after de-radicalization efforts by appropriate government agencies and NGOs.”
It is expedient to state that only profiled Boko Haram and ISWAP terrorists are held in detention pending their prosecution by appropriate prosecuting agencies, as the AFN is not vested with the power of prosecution. It is also necessary to clarify, that aside the set of children involved in acts of terrorism, some adult female Boko Haram terrorists arrested in terrorists’ enclaves during combat have also been found to be with children.”