LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Hundreds of people are dying in military detention from shootings, suffocation or starvation as Nigeria's security forces crack down on an Islamic uprising in the northeast, Amnesty International said Tuesday.
More than 950 people died in military custody in the first six months of this year, according to "credible information" from a senior Nigerian army officer, the rights group said.
The Associated Press reported in August that hundreds of people detained by security forces in northern Nigeria have disappeared. The new Amnesty International report may help explain what happened to all those people — a horrifying result for their loved ones who are still searching for the missing.
Military and government officials did not immediately respond to phone calls and emails requesting their comments.
If the number of deaths in military custody cited by the Amnesty International is accurate, that means Nigeria's military has killed more civilians than the extremists did during the first half of 2013.
Amnesty International called for an urgent investigation.
Detainees "were reportedly shot in the leg during interrogations, provided no medical care and left to bleed to death," the London-based human rights group said in the report, which includes testimony from freed detainees.
The AP reported three months after President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the northeastern states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe on May 14 that hundreds of people were being rounded up in night raids. The state of emergency gives a Joint Task Force of soldiers, police, intelligence and customs and immigration officials the right to detain people and move them from place to place, as well as the right to search without warrants.
Distraught relatives, human rights organizations and journalists have asked the army, the police, intelligence services and government officials where the arrested people are, but have received no answers, the AP reported.
Amnesty International says dozens of bodies are being delivered by soldiers to the mortuaries of the main hospitals in Maiduguri and Damaturu, capitals of Borno and Yobe states.
Human rights activist Shehu Sani of the northern-based Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria told AP in August that he believes thousands had been detained.
Amnesty International said those killed were detained as suspected members or associates of Boko Haram, an armed Islamic extremist group that has claimed responsibility for attacks that have killed hundreds of Muslim and Christian civilians this year in their mission to overturn democracy and force Nigeria — Africa's most populous nation which is almost equally divided between the predominantly Muslim north and mainly Christian south — to become an Islamic state.
Boko Haram itself routinely commits human rights abuses, gunning down schoolchildren, health workers, government officials, Christian pastors and moderate Muslim clerics. In 2009, security forces bombed and destroyed the Boko Haram headquarters in Maiduguri. The sect's leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was killed in police custody.
Amnesty International said most of the deaths it documented at the hands of security forces took place at the Presidential Lodge guardroom and a detention center in Damaturu, and at Giwa Military Barracks in Maiduguri.
"The details of what happens behind locked doors in these shadowy detention facilities must be exposed, and those responsible for any human rights violations brought to book," said Amnesty International's deputy Africa director, Lucy Freeman.
Amnesty International quoted a second senior army officer as saying: "Hundreds have been killed in detention either by shooting them or by suffocation. People are crammed into one cell. There are times when people are brought out on a daily basis and killed."
Local and international human rights activists warned when thousands of troops were deployed in May that abuses by the military could help fuel the insurgency.
Civilians in northeast Nigeria as well as refugees among more than 30,000 who have fled to Cameroon, Chad and Niger have told AP reporters that they fear Nigeria's military as much as they do Boko Haram.
In April, security forces attacked by Boko Haram at the fishing village of Baga turned their guns on civilians after the militants fled. Witnesses told the AP that 187 civilians were killed by security forces who razed the village.
The military said 37 civilians were killed. There has been no investigation and no repercussions for the perpetrators.