Independent, Impartial Probes Essential
(Abuja) – The killing of hundreds of Shia Muslim members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), by Nigerian army soldiers from December 12 to 14, 2015, appears to have been wholly unjustified. The Judicial Commission of Inquiry set up by the government should be sufficiently independent and impartial to hold those responsible to account.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 16 witnesses to the killings and five others, including local authorities, who said that Nigerian army soldiers fired on Shia Muslim members of the group at three locations in Zaria, in northern Nigeria. The army said its confrontation with the Shia sect members who had erected a makeshift roadblock near a mosque resulted from an assassination attempt on the army chief of staff, Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai, whose convoy was passing by. In an internal military document seen by Human Rights Watch, the army said protesters appeared to be taking up positions near the back of the convoy.
“The Nigerian military’s version of events does not stack up,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “It is almost impossible to see how a roadblock by angry young men could justify the killings of hundreds of people. At best it was a brutal overreaction and at worst it was a planned attack on the minority Shia group.”
The army carried out attacks at the Hussainniya Baqiyyatullah mosque and religious center, at the home of the Shiite leader, Sheikh Ibrahim Al Zakzaky, in the Gyellesu neighborhood and at the sect’s burial ground, Daral-Rahma, over the course of two days. At least 300 Shia sect members, and likely many more, were killed and hundreds more injured, according to witnesses in at least two of the sites and a hospital source. Soldiers quickly buried the bodies in mass graves without family members’ permission, making it difficult to determine an accurate death toll.
Although some people threw stones and had sticks, there has been no credible information that any soldiers were injured or killed.
The Islamic Movement of Nigeria is a Shia sect with close ties to Iran based in Zaria, Kaduna state. It began in the 1980s and is led by Sheik Zakzaky, who was inspired by Iran’s revolutionary movement when he traveled there. The sect has an estimated 3 million followers spread across Nigeria. It is separate from Boko Haram, a radical Islamic group also operating in northern Nigeria, whose members have attacked Shia and others.
Under international human rights law governing the use of force during policing operations such as this, the intentional use of lethal force is only permitted when strictly unavoidable, to protect life.
On December 17, 2015, the Kaduna state governor, Malam Nasir El Rufai, announced the establishment of a state Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the incident. In his news conference, the governor listed a range of grievances against the Shia sect, including how road traffic had been disrupted during Shiite processions and the sect’s disregard for Nigerian government authorities.
President Muhammadu Buhari has yet to make any public statement on the killings. On December 18, a presidential spokesperson said that the incident was “a military affair.”
Principle 22 of the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, applicable to the Nigerian armed forces in this situation, stipulates that, “Governments and law enforcement agencies shall ensure that an effective review process is available and that independent administrative or prosecutorial authorities are in a position to exercise jurisdiction in appropriate circumstances.” Under the same principles, Nigerian authorities are bound to ensure effective investigations.
“Characterizing this terrible carnage against Shiites in Zaria as ‘a military affair’ is shocking,” Bekele said. “President Buhari should ensure the military’s appalling track record of serious human rights abuses is halted and does not continue under his term in office."
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