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Nigeria: Boko Haram attacks likely crimes against humanity

(Abuja) - Widespread and systematic killings and persecutions by Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group in northern Nigeria, are highly likely to amount to crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Government security forces are also involved in numerous assaults, including extrajudicial executions.

The 98-page report "Spiraling Violence: Boko Haram Attacks and Security Force Abuses in Nigeria" documents atrocities committed by Boko Haram. He is also investigating the role of Nigerian security forces whose alleged abuses violate human rights and thus could constitute crimes against humanity. The wave of violence that began in 2009 has left more than 2,800 dead.

“The illegal killings by Boko Haram and the Nigerian security forces are only getting worse. Both sides need to stop this spiral of violence, ”said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The Nigerian government should quickly bring the Boko Haram members and the Nigerian security forces to justice who have committed these crimes."

The report, with a series of photos, is based on research conducted on site in Nigeria between July 2010 and July 2012, as well as the results of regular media reviews of attacks and statements by Boko Haram since 2009. Human Rights Watch employees have interviews with 135 people in total, including 91 people who were victims or witnesses of violence by Boko Haram or attacks by the security forces. Respondents also included lawyers, heads of civil society organizations, government officials, and senior military and police officers.

Since 2009 there have been several hundred attacks attributed to Boko Haram. More than 1,500 people died in these attacks, according to media reports viewed by Human Rights Watch. In the first nine months of 2012 alone, 815 people were killed in 275 attacks that are believed to have been carried out by Boko Haram. This is more fatalities than in 2010 and 2011 combined.

The aim of Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is a sin" in Hausa, a language spoken in northern Nigeria, is to enforce a strict form of Sharia, Islamic law, and to end corruption within the government. Widespread poverty, corruption, police abuse, and longstanding impunity for various crimes have created a climate favorable to violence, according to Human Rights Watch.

The attacks in Boko Haram, which so far have concentrated on northern Nigeria, were mainly directed against police officers or government security officers, but also against Christians and Muslims who work with the government or who are accused of such cooperation. Boko Haram members also bombed press offices and United Nations buildings in the capital, Abuja. Bars have been targeted by attacks, banks have been robbed and schools have been burned down.

In July 2009 there was a violent clash between the group and Nigerian security forces. Both sides literally executed numerous opponents. This conflict, which lasted five days, killed more than 800 people and sparked further violence. Also in 2009, security forces arrested the group's leader, Mohammed Yusuf, and unceremoniously executed him with at least several dozen of his supporters in northern Maiduguri.

When the group reorganized itself in 2010 under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau, the former deputy of Yusuf, it swore revenge for the killed members. Since then, suspected Boko Haram members have carried out attacks on more than 60 police stations in at least ten northern and central Nigerian states. The police headquarters in Abuja was also the target of a bomb attack. According to media reports viewed by Human Rights Watch, at least 211 police officers were killed in these attacks.

The widow of a police officer killed by Boko Haram reported that members of the group disguised as police officers attacked a police barracks in Kano in January 2012:

I stood in the doorway ... I saw five men in police uniforms. They wore Kalashnikovs. They didn't say anything. One shot me in the leg and I fell into the house. My husband, also in uniform, went out and saw the men. He was unarmed. He asked: “Colleagues, why are you shooting at my wife?” And then they shot him, bang, they shot him right in the forehead. He immediately fell over [dead].

Police took the woman to the hospital the next morning, where her right leg was amputated above the knee.

Boko Haram also confessed to the attacks and killings of numerous Christians in northern Nigeria. Since 2010, alleged members of the group have carried out bomb attacks on at least 18 churches in eight northern and central Nigerian states, or shot at people who were in these churches. Human Rights Watch found that the group forced Christians in Maiduguri to convert to Islam on pain of death.
Suspected Boko Haram shooters, often on motorcycles and armed with Kalashnikovs, have also gunned down more than a dozen Muslim clergymen and murdered traditional leaders. The motive for these attacks was that they allegedly condemned the acts of Boko Haram or helped the authorities identify members of the group. The group also confessed to the killings of northern Nigerian politicians and officials - almost all of whom were Muslims.

"Boko Haram murdered people in cold blood while they were praying in churches in northern Nigeria," said Bekele. "Muslims who publicly denied the group's terrible acts of violence were also gunned down."

The Nigerian government reacted harshly to the actions of Boko Haram. Security forces killed hundreds of suspected members, as well as other citizens who had no proven connection with the group. All of this, according to the government, was done to end the threat posed by Boko Haram to the Nigerian people. However, the authorities have rarely acted against those actually responsible for the violence in Boko Haram. Nor have the security forces been held accountable for their violent attacks.

The military allegedly used excessive force in raids on communities where attacks had occurred. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch also reported other human rights violations such as home burning, ill-treatment and illegal killings.

The Nigerian authorities have also arrested hundreds of people during raids in the north of the country. Many of them have been in solitary confinement for months or even years without being charged or tried. In some cases, detention conditions were inhuman and prisoners were ill-treated or died. The fate of many prisoners remains uncertain.

Boko Haram should immediately refrain from attacks and threats of attacks that cost human lives and lead to the destruction of property, according to Human Rights Watch. The Nigerian government should take immediate action against human rights abuses, which have sometimes fueled the violence.

“The Nigerian government has a duty to protect the country's citizens from violence. However, international human rights must also be protected, ”said Bekele. "Rather than relying on strategies that continue to violate human rights and only make the situation worse, the authorities must immediately prosecute those responsible for such serious crimes."