Men, women and children living and dying in overcrowded unsanitary detention cells, stricken by disease and malnutrition – that is how a new Amnesty International report describes the conditions at Nigeria’s notorious Giwa barracks as it calls for the facility’s immediate closure.
The UK-based watchdog says evidence shows that between January and April this year, 149 people, including 11 children and babies as young as 5 months, have died at one of the main detention facilities in Borno State’s capital Maiduguri.
That number is about one-tenth the total of people currently held at the facility, estimated by Amnesty to be around 1,200. Among them are at least 120 children too young to be held in prison-like conditions.
“We have repeatedly sounded the alarm over the high death rate of detainees in Giwa barracks, but these findings show that, for both adults and children, it remains a place of death,” said Netsanet Belay, Amnesty International’s research and advocacy director for Africa.
Once established as a temporary facility, the Giwa barracks have been in operation far too long to be considered anything but a prison, Amnesty International spokesman Adotei Akwei said Friday, adding that conditions there remain appalling and in some cases lethal.
“The tragedy is that if you are detained in Giwa, your chances of coming to trial and wining your freedom, or being pardoned or being released, are extremely low,” said Akwei. “There is no prisoner list, the authorities do not inform families who has been arrested or detained.”
CNN hasn’t been able to independently confirm those claims.
When asked about the allegations of the report, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari told CNN Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour that his government must investigate the claims. “We have to do it,” he said in an interview released Thursday.
The Nigerian military denounced Amnesty’s report, calling it “completely baseless” and “unfounded.”
“The accusation comes as a surprise and shock, because the organization has accessed the facilities and made recommendations which were implemented,” Nigerian military spokesman Brig Gen. Rabe Abubakar said in a statement Thursday.
Abubakar said the report is intended to dent the image of the military and doesn’t reflect the true situation at Giwa barracks, as “it has no iota of truth.”
“We will not be deterred by this report, but would remain committed to the task we have started against the Boko Haram terrorists until they are annihilated,” he said.
In response to Abubakar’s comments, Amnesty said it had never inspected the facility, because it was never granted permission. “No member of Amnesty International staff has ever been granted access or has been inside the barracks,” the organization said.
Akwei confirmed to CNN that Amnesty has never been given access to the facility but would welcome that opportunity. He acknowledged the government has taken some steps to alleviate conditions there but they haven’t been enough.
In its report, titled “If you see it, you will cry: Life and death in Giwa barracks,” Amnesty says many of the detainees at the facility were rounded up arbitrarily during mass arrests often targeting Boko Haram militants and sympathizers, who are conducting frequent attacks in the area and trying to lure followers.
However, Amnesty says the identities of many of the detainees at Giwa still remain unknown.
“Faced with an enemy as brutal as Boko Haram, a key challenge for the Nigerian military is to defeat them whilst still fully respecting human rights and the rule of law,” said Belay. “This is a challenge that they seem to be failing.”
The Nigerian military maintains human rights and the dignity of innocent individuals are being observed.
Amnesty says evidence reveals detainees were “subjected to conditions which amounted to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”
The 28-page report compiles testimony from former detainees and eyewitnesses, and contains images showing bodies and recently dug graves. It said some of the male bodies appeared to have gunshot wounds.
Amnesty said the evidence was analyzed by staff members and an independent forensics expert.
Based on the evidence, while it is “unable to confirm the exact causes of death of detainees, it is likely that starvation, dehydration and disease all linked to overcrowding at the detention cells in Giwa barracks may have contributed to this surge in number of deaths in custody,” the report says.
Female witnesses detained in the women’s cells told Amnesty they saw several bodies of children. One woman said pleas for medical assistance were ignored and as a result several children died of measles.
When describing the conditions at the men’s cells, detainees told Amnesty that hunger, thirst and heat were common.
“No-one has a shirt, so you can count the ribs of their body,” said one former detainee. “There is no cleaning, so you live in disease. It is like a toilet.”
“In the morning they open the cell and take the urine and stool (buckets) outside. Next the coffin (corpses) will be taken outside,” said another man.
This week’s report is the latest concern raised by Amnesty of violations at Giwa barracks and other military detention facilities in Nigeria.
In June 2015 the watchdog reported that since 2011, over 7,000 young men and boys had died in military detention as a result of starvation, thirst, disease, torture and a lack of medical attention.
“As overcrowding increases, so does the number of emaciated corpses emerging from Giwa barracks, with babies and young children among the dead,” said Belay. “It is now time for President Buhari to uphold his pledge to launch an urgent investigation into these deaths, release the children and shut down Giwa barracks detention centre without delay.”
Buhari is hosting a regional summit in Abuja on Saturday on African security and the fight against Boko Haram. Buhari has long vowed to defeat the terror group but its attacks have continued despite the efforts of the Nigerian military.