Torture widespread in police custody in Nigeria, UN rights expert says

Special Rapporteur Manfred Nowak

12 March 2007 – Torture, ill-treatment and impunity for the perpetrators are widespread in police custody in Nigeria, though apparently not in the prison system, and the Government should take decisive steps to implement its obligations under international law to criminalize these practices, an independent United Nations human rights expert said today, while welcoming progress in other areas.

“Torture is an intrinsic part of how law enforcement services operate within the country,” UN Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on torture Manfred Nowak said in a statement at the end of a weeklong visit, detailing floggings and shootings in the foot among the practices used to obtain confessions or other information.

At the same time, he thanked top police and prison officials for opening up their facilities to unannounced visits and for enabling him to conduct private interviews with detainees, although this was not the case with State Security Service, leading him to “strongly suspect that the authorities wished to conceal evidence.”

He welcomed the adoption of a number of State laws prohibiting discrimination against women in critical areas, such as female genital mutilation and early marriage, but said he remained concerned that these practices and social acceptance of them persisted.

He also noted that the Government’s invitation to him to visit was yet another example of Nigeria’s willingness to open itself up to independent scrutiny of its human rights situation, and a reaffirmation of its commitment to cooperate with the international community in the area of human rights.

While officials said torture, prohibited by law, might occur “in an unfortunate isolated circumstance” and the sternest measures were taken against perpetrators, “these observations appear divorced from the realities prevailing in criminal investigation departments and police stations in the country,” Mr. Nowak said.

“The high number of consistent and credible allegations received from speaking with various detainees, corroborated by forensic medical evidence, in facilities visited in different parts of the country and obtained within the span of a one-week mission, speaks volumes,” the statement added.

Despite the existence of safeguards for arrest and detention, they are regularly ignored. Torture was frequently cited to the Special Rapporteur as being used for the purpose of extracting confessions or to obtain further information in relation to alleged crimes.

“Methods of torture included: flogging with whips; beating with batons and machetes; shooting suspects in the foot; threatening a suspect with death and then shooting him with powder cartridges; suspension from the ceiling or metal rods in various positions; and being denied food, water and medical treatment,” the statement said.

Mr. Nowak stressed that there was no question of accountability because there are no functioning complaint mechanisms and victims feel powerless, resigned to accept that impunity is the natural order of things in a system marked by endemic corruption.

He said that conditions of detention in police cells he were “appalling,” with detainees held in unsanitary overcrowded cells and forced to sleep on the concrete floor with minimum food and water supply. “Medical care is non-existent and seriously ill detainees are left to languish until they die,” he added, noting that he met at least three detainees with life-threatening injuries who would die without prompt medical attention.

Mr. Nowak also noted that corporal punishment, such as caning, remains lawful in Nigeria, as do Muslim Sharia penal code punishments, particularly in northern states, such as amputation, flogging and stoning to death, while Sharia-related provisions for adultery and sodomy, discriminate, respectively, against women and same-sex couples.

He stressed that any form of corporal punishment is contrary to the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment is not allowed under international law, and violates international human rights treaties to which Nigeria is a party.

He recommended that the Government, with the help of the international community such as the UN, take “decisive steps” to criminalize torture as defined by international conventions, fight impunity by establishing an independent investigation mechanism, and introduce measures for complaints in detention centres as well as medical documentation of torture allegations, access to free legal aid and monitoring of interrogation methods.

The expert, who is unpaid and serves in an individual capacity, also called for abolition of all forms of corporal punishment and take further steps towards the abolition of capital punishment, and for effective mechanisms to enforce the prohibition of violence against women including traditional practices such as female genital mutilation, including awareness-raising campaigns.

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