As soon as the High Court in Lagos ordered the release of 101 detainees imprisoned for over a decade without charges except an un-evidenced association with Boko Haram, the Nigerian military stopped their journey home and moved them to the site of a deradicalisation programme in Gombe.
The release of the detainees from the maximum and medium-security facilities in Kirikiri Prison was ordered in early October, after an intervention from the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria.
They obtained rulings from three high court judges, and the agreement of the Attorney General of The Federation, that allowed the men to be released.
But on Oct 8, the day after the third ruling by a Federal High Court, the men were removed from the prison and airlifted to Gombe. They will continue to be held under armed guard in a former orientation camp for National Youth Service Corps in Mallam Sidi, reinforced with walls and guard towers. They will live in dormitories, and spend their time attending religious classes and other “deradicalisation” programmes.
There is no set duration for the programme, release is dependent on judgement of the camp administration. There is little information available about how those decisions are made.
People with knowledge of the camp, codenamed “Safe Corridor”, say many of the inmates had nothing to do with Boko Haram. There is a section that often, contains detainees from Sulhu, a program run by the domestic intelligence agency for hard-core jihadists. The two groups occasionally interact.
As soon as the men were released, a story emerged on an internet news site that stated the men had been released in a deal for the remaining hostages taken from the Abuja- Kaduna train kidnapping. The release of the final group of abductees had been announced two days before, on Oct 5.
But the Legal Aid Council’s FCT Director, AbdulFattah Bakre, dismisses this out of hand. The Attorney General of the Federation Abubakar Malami signed off on the release in September. “This has been going on for long before the train business”, Mr Bakre told HumAngle.
It had been a long process to obtain the orders necessary to get the men freed. The legal aid body, an agency of the Nigerian government assisting people unable to get legal representation, filed a fundamental human rights enforcement application in May.
“They told us they were arrested variously in Maiduguri, Borno, and Kano sometime in 2009 between June and October,” said Mr Bakre. Most of the detainees were young men between 18 and 30 when their arrests took place.
Most reported that they were arrested as they travelled in vehicles on the highway or while walking. The incidents occurred after police or military personnel had stopped vehicles for searching. They were profiled, based on their appearance as Muslims, Mr Bakre said.
According to the Director, LACON intervened after a court action instituted by an NGO in Lagos last year was struck out for technical reasons by the trial judge. The judge felt that the application ought to have been brought individually for each defendant, not as a mass action suit.
The Legal Aid Council interviewed the detainees and then urged the Attorney General of the Federation to seek their release.
Tens of thousands of people detained in Nigerian prisons have never seen a court or been charged according to research by human rights organisation Amnesty International. Without intervention they could be jailed indefinitely after wrongful profiling and arrest by security forces. In 2015, Amnesty reported that in the course of security operations against Boko Haram, the Nigerian military arbitrarily arrested at least 20,000 people, mostly young men and boys.
HumAngle has also followed the situation of people kept in military and civilian holding facilities in Maiduguri and, in some cases, their journey to the deradicalisation camp, which was originally built for rehabilitating Boko Haram members.
The detainees were arrested in Borno, Bauchi, and Kano states during the heat of the Boko Haram uprising. They were charged in magistrate and federal high courts with offences under the penal code, such as belonging to an unlawful society, possessing dangerous weapons, and causing mischief by fire, which carried prison terms of seven years.
“Meaning, if these people were convicted, they would have served their time of imprisonment as of the time we came in contact with them in 2022,” Abdulfattah says.
There were 104 detainees when the military moved them from the three states to the Lagos facilities on March 13, 2011, after which they stopped going to court. While in custody, three died, and eight others became mentally ill.
An investigation of the cases revealed that they were struck out in Maiduguri and Bauchi. Abdulfattah states that “the charge against them in Bauchi had since been struck out on 30th of November 2010, meaning at the time they were moved in 2011, they had no criminal charge pending against them in any court of law in Nigeria.”
Out of the 169 charged in Bauchi, only 17 were around during the transfer because they had not processed their bail. “In some of the charges in Maiduguri, we discovered that it had also been struck out at various times between 2009 and 2013.”
He adds that most of them had no pending criminal charges against them.
The authorities could not also prosecute the detainees for terrorism because their arrest and arraignment happened before Nigeria’s Terrorism Prevention Act was passed in 2011.
The road home
The Legal Aid Council initiated the process to secure the detainee’s release by filing a fundamental human rights application. “We realised that they can only be released pursuant to a court order since it was a court order that brought them into the correctional centre.”
The case for the first set of 40 detainees, whose files showed their cases had been struck out, was filed individually. In contrast, the suits regarding the remaining 61 were filed together because of the inability to obtain the orders striking out their issues.
After a series of discussions with the Attorney General’s Office, the legal team entered into a settlement. They agreed that the detainees had no pending criminal charge as of the time the fundamental human rights action was filed.
The court was then approached to adopt the terms of the settlement dated Sept. 28 after it was signed off by the Attorney General a few days earlier.
The court rulings ordering the detainees’ release were given on Oct. 4 and 5. However, on the day of their release on Oct. 8, the military took them to the Operation Safe Corridor camp in the northeastern state of Gombe on the ground that they needed to be debriefed and deradicalised.
Although the terms of the settlement included not getting paid any compensation, Mr Bakre says the detainees will be able to institute a case for the loss of over a decade of their lives in confinement.
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