ABUJA, 28 July (IRIN) - The government has rejected charges by Human Rights Watch (HRW) that torture by police officials is widespread and goes unpunished countering that reform, though underway, is difficult given Nigeria's history of military dictatorship.
Nigerian Information Minister, Frank Nweke, rejected the HRW report "Rest in Pieces" released on Wednesday, which said police torture of detainees is widespread, often committed with the knowledge or complicity of senior police officials and commonly results in the death of the detainee.
"[The government can say] without fear of contradiction that torture is not routinely practiced in Nigeria," Nweke told reporters in Abuja.
Nweke cast doubt on the basis of the HRW report, saying the group "detailed accounts of a few unnamed and unidentified persons who alleged that they have been brutalised by the Nigerian Police."
According to HRW, their report is based on 50 interviews with torture victims and witnesses.
Interviewees told the group that forms of torture committed by the Nigerian police included binding of arms and legs, suspension by hands or legs from the ceiling or a pole, beatings with metal or wood objects, spraying of tear gas in the face, rape and other sexual assault of female detainees, the use of electric shocks on the penis, gun-shots to the feet or legs, stoning, and the denial of food and water.
Nweke said the government is carrying out comprehensive reforms within the criminal justice system. But he said that that process was difficult in a country like Nigeria, which only returned to elected civilian government in 1999 after 16 years of military rule.
"Human Rights Watch ought to realise that for a country that had undergone military dictatorship for so long, the task of repositioning an institution like the police is not only daunting but must be done thoroughly," said Nweke.
But HRW said the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo is not doing enough to change the "culture of violence" within the police force "that stems from the use of the police as a tool of control and oppression by colonial and military rulers alike".
Nweke defended Obasanjo's track record.
"President Obasanjo has demonstrated times without number that he is committed to the enthronement of rights and respect for the rule of law," said Nweke.
"All reported cases [of abuse by law enforcement agents] are fully investigated and culprits brought to book," he said.
The HRW report documents interviews with two female students who said they were gang-raped by three police officers, including a deputy superintendent of police.
In another case a 23-year-old arrested for alleged robbery said police inserted a broom bristle in his penis until he bled then tied a cloth covered with tear gas powder around his eyes.
The 76-page report also documents cases of torture and other inhuman treatment against political activists advocating greater autonomy for an ethnic, regional or religious group.
"In these cases the abuse appears to be aimed at punishing them for involvement with groups which threaten or clash with the policies of the state or federal government," the report said.
HRW recommends that the Nigerian government demand regular reports from divisional police stations of abuse charges, including torture, killings or extortion. That document should include details of how cases are being followed up and the information should be made public.
Donors should make financial assistance, training and other aid to Nigerian law enforcement agencies conditional on concrete measures to prevent torture and end impunity, said HRW.
Earlier this month a UN human rights expert said that Nigerian police commonly use charges of armed robbery as a pretext for detaining people and extorting money from them. Police were also guilty of excessive force, often resulting in death, said the expert.
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