A specialist police unit that was set up to tackle Nigeria’s alarming rise in violent crime has instead become a hotbed for alleged corruption, where suspects are claimed to be detained in horrific conditions and tortured until they or their relatives can pay for their freedom, according to a damning new report.
Amnesty International said it had investigated facilities run by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), and found multiple cases where “confessions” were allegedly obtained through torture, where people who had not been charged with any crime were claimed to be beaten and starved, and where suspects were detained for months longer than the maximum 48 hours defined in Nigeria’s constitution.
SARS was set up with a specific remit to investigate serious violent crime, predominantly armed robberies and kidnappings. Nigerian officials deny allegations of torture or any intentional ill-treatment of detainees at SARS stations, saying thet SARS officers receive training in human rights.
Yet according to Amnesty International’s report, the unit has become seen as a comfortable posting in the police force where officers allegedly know they can “earn a substantial amount of money in a short time”, in part through extortion and in part through the theft of valuables from suspects.
In one case featured in the report, a 29-year-old man was detained along with four friends by SARS officers – not for armed robbery or kidnapping, but after getting into a fight with a neighbour.
The man’s wife and neighbours told the human rights organisation they saw him being badly beaten by police officers during the arrest.
When the man’s brother went to the station to see those arrested, he was allegedly told to pay 1,000 Naira (about £3) each for every person he wanted to visit.
The family was reluctant to pay, until on a third visit six relatives had put together enough and went to the station. They paid, went in, and were then told that the man they wanted to see had died in custody.
“They said they were not responsible for the death,” the brother said. “We were not allowed to ask any questions or seek clarification.”
In another case, a 24-year-old university student named Ekene was arrested by SARS officers in Awka, Anambra state. According to his lawyer, the officer in charge of his case told the man’s mother she had to pay N100,000 (about £240) to secure his release.
“The investigating police officer (IPO) told me that he will not guarantee the life of Ekene if we fail to pay the money before the end of that day,” the lawyer told Amnesty International. “I advised my client to pay. My client practically paid for the life of her son. We did not take any further action because my client is afraid of SARS.”
Amnesty International said that over the course of 44 interviews with former detainees at SARS facilities across Nigeria, victims described alleged torture methods, including hanging, starvation, beatings, shootings and mock executions.
One detainee, a petrol station attendant, said he was accused by his employer of a burglary at the premises, and arrested by SARS officers.
He claimed to Amnesty International: “The policemen took me to a hall. They brought a plain sheet and asked me to sign. When I signed it, they said to me ‘you have signed your death warrant’.
“They took me to the back of the building and tied my hands to the back. They also connected the rope to my legs, leaving me hanging on a suspended iron rod. They put the iron rod in the middle between my hands and the leg with my head facing the ground.
“I went limp. The IPO came at intervals and told me to tell him the truth. I lost consciousness. When I was about to die they took me down and poured water on me to revive me. People carried me back to the cell. I was detained for two weeks.”
The man was released without charge after lawyers filed a rights case against the facility. No one has yet been held to account for the man’s alleged torture, or for any of the other cases raised by Amnesty International, its report said.
Amnesty International said that in two meetings where it raised concerns with the Inspector General of Police, the authorities “generally denied allegations of torture or any intentional ill-treatment of detainees at SARS stations”.
And senior officers told the charity that because of its elite status, officers in SARS receive training on human rights. One Commissioner of Police said: “In some instances, there is special training for SARS personnel. Not every police officer can work in SARS. They need to be tough to deal with the rough demands of their job. And human rights are part of the police training. The human rights manual is simply a tool for affecting the training.”
Nigeria's national police force denied the allegations, saying it did "not employ torture or any form of unauthorised technique in criminal investigation". "Investigators are trained to conform to international best practices," said spokesman Don Awunah.
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