Nigerian police use armed robbery as a catch-all charge to jail people for refusing to pay a bribe and to justify the unnecessary killing of civilians, a UN human rights expert has said.
Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, highlighted the issue in his preliminary report on Nigeria, issued on Friday at the end of a two-week fact-finding mission.
He cited the recent case of the "Apo Six" case in the federal capital, Abuja.
Policemen killed six people in the Apo district of the city last month and claimed afterwards that they were armed robbers who had opened fire first.
An angry mob besieged the Apo neighbourhood police station the following day, and the government, faced with a national outcry, launched a judicial inquiry. Six policemen were subsequently charged with murder.
Alston described this action by the government as a first, and said it needed to become the norm.
"Such procedures need to become routine in such cases if the police are to get the message that they cannot kill innocent individuals and subsequently label them as armed robbers," the Australian human rights expert said.
A recent study by the Centre for Law Enforcement Education in Nigeria (CLEEN), a local non-governmental organisation, estimated that policemen at checkpoints resort to shooting motorists in one out of 20 instances where they refuse to pay a bribe.
According to the Nigerian police forces own published figures, police officers killed 3,100 suspected armed robbers in 2003.
Alston said the charge of armed robbery was widely used to jail people, whose only crime had been to stand up to police corruption.
"While I do not for a moment under-estimate the scourge of armed robbery which plagues too much of Nigeria, there is no doubt in my mind that the label of armed robbers is very often used to justify the jailing of innocent individuals who have come to the attention of the police for reasons ranging from a refusal to pay a bribe to inconveniencing or insulting the police," said Alston, who is a professor of law at New York University in the United States.
He noted that suspects taken into custody were also at risk of being killed arbitrarily by trigger-happy policemen.
Alston cited one case in Enugu, in southeastern Nigeria, where six alleged armed robbers were killed in their cells in what authorities described as an attempt to escape.
"According to the information provided to me in interviews with relatives of the dead men, not one of them was merely wounded, not one was only shot in the leg, and not one was rushed to a doctor for medical attention," the UN expert said.
Alston described the incident as "an entirely disproportionate use of force to subdue individuals who were unarmed, still within police custody and were very far from having escaped."
He said this sort of scenario "unfortunately seems not to be uncommon."
International human rights analysts have regularly criticised heavy-handed policing in Nigeria, describing it as a pattern of behaviour left over from 15 years of military rule.
They have criticised President Olusegun Obasanjo for not doing enough to change things during the past six years of elected civilian government
Until the beginning of 2005, the official motto emblazoned on police patrol cars across Africa's most populous nation was "Operation Fire for Fire". In January, when the Inspector General of Police resigned abruptly, to be charged shortly afterwards with massive corruption, his successor changed the slogan to "Serving with integrity and honour."
However, human rights activists believe that a parallel shift in police mentality is still some way off.
"Nigeria still has a type of policing based on confrontation with the population, rather than protection," said Carina Tertsakian, a Nigeria specialist at Human Rights Watch.
Alston also protested at the death sentence which applies to practicing homosexuals in 12 northern states of Nigeria which have adopted Islamic Sharia law since 2000.
He highlighted the case of a man on death row in the northern city of Kano, awaiting execution by stoning for sodomy.
The suspect was accused by a Hisbah committee -- a group of people who help uphold Sharia law -- of having sex with a younger man. The defendant denied that specific charge, but did admit that he had had sex with other men on previous occasions. On that basis, he was condemned to death.
"Sodomy cannot be considered one of the most serious crimes for which, under international law, the death penalty can be prescribed. The punishment is wholly disproportionate," Alston said.
That comment may well prove controversial in Nigeria, a country of 126 million people split on political lines between a predominantly Muslim north and mainly Christian south.
The UN expert, who met more than 100 prisoners of the 530 prisoners on death row during his mission to Nigeria, said the average time spent awaiting execution was 20 years and many of these condemned men were suffering from "serious mental illnesses."
Alston noted that several of the condemned men claimed to be have been under 18 at the time they committed their crimes and if that were true, Nigeria, would be violating its international obligations by sentencing them to death.
Officials at the Ministry of Justice were not immediately available to comment on the UN expert's findings.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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