In a sparsely decorated room in Nigeria’s capital city of Abuja, seven women are seated in a row, their backs turned to the assembled media to remain anonymous.
One after the other, the women recount horrific physical and sexual abuse they say they were subjected to following their arrests on April 27 by officers of a special task force that raided hotels and nightclubs in Abuja.
“They forced us, they raped us,” one of the women shouted into the microphone at the media conference, which was recorded on video and seen by CNN..
The 65 women who were arrested say they were beaten and harassed by officers, who forced them into their vans and drove them to the police station, their lawyers and NGOs told CNN. The seven women in the video say they were sexually assaulted as well.
They said the officers, part of a task force targeting prostitution, demanded bribes in return for some of the women’s release. Those who couldn’t pay were forced to have sex with the officers, the women said during the media conference.
“‘Where is your money?’ they asked, and if you say you don’t have, then it is your turn to have sex with them,” one of the women said in the video of the news conference. The event was organized by activists calling for the officers involved in the raid to be arrested.
Police investigating allegations
Abuja police spokesman Gajere Tanimu said in a statement that the department is taking the rape allegations against the task force seriously and investigations are under way.
“The command wishes to assure members of the public of its zero tolerance for unprofessional disregard to human rights and stiff punishments will be meted out to erring officers,” the statement read.
“A high-powered team was constituted to investigate the veracity of the allegation” against police, he wrote. “In this regard invitations were sent out to relevant individuals that may assist in getting to the root of the matter.”
In all, 65 women were arrested by a task force comprising officers from the city’s environment and social development agency and local police, Tanimu told CNN.
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Twenty-seven of them were arraigned and charged with prostitution, said their lawyer, Jennifer Ogbogu.
The women said they were coerced into confessing and had no legal counsel at the time to contest the allegations against them, their lawyer said.
“They threatened they would be sentenced to six months in jail and they won’t have access to their family. They were scared and they had no lawyer at the time,” she told CNN.
Those who pleaded guilty were sentenced to a month in jail and given an option to pay a fine of 3,000 naria (less than $10) for an immediate release, said their lawyer. An NGO paid the fines to secure the women’s release, Ogbogu said.
Women say arrests are arbitrary
The FCT (Federal Capital Territory) Joint Task Force frequently conducts raids on institutions or establishments suspected of violating city laws, including prostitution. They regularly clear beggars from streets.
But Nollywood actress Ada Akunne said she was in her car to go out with friends to celebrate a cousin’s graduation from medical school when police officers accosted them on the night of the raid.
Akunne, 44, said the officers threatened to seize their phones and accused them of being inappropriately dressed.
“They said we dressed provocatively and since there was no man in the car we must be prostitutes looking for clients. They called their colleagues to come and arrest us,” she told CNN.
She was not arrested. She said the police officers only released them after passersby gathered around.
Some women arrested in the raids said that they were randomly selected in nightclubs and detained at the Utako police station, where police sexually assaulted them, according to a coalition of over 70 activist groups and individuals protesting the arrests.
Tanimu, the police spokesman, said, “We know some of the women were arrested and released by the task force even before they got to the police station. Some were also charged to court, we are investigating all these allegations and questioning all those who went on the raids.”
Groups want the raids to stop
The allegations of rape and extortion at the hands of law enforcement officers have provoked widespread anger, with many calling for a shutdown of the task force
Hundreds of women and rights groups organized two demonstrations in the capital in the space of a week calling for the shutdown of the task force.
Rights group Amnesty International said the raids were “unconstitutional” and also called for an end to the continued harassment of women in the city.
Osai Ojigho, Amnesty International’s Nigeria director, said the raid violated the women’s rights of free movement and expression.
“This adds another layer to the insecurity women already face,” Ojigho said. “A woman now fears to go out in the evening because she can be picked up and labeled a prostitute while shopping or jogging.”
Nigerian actress Dorothy Njemanze knows only too well the consequences of being falsely arrested and labeled a prostitute in conservative and highly religious Nigeria, where some people believe that “decent” women do not walk on the streets after midnight.
“We need to address this preconceived notion that any woman out at night and wearing what the police thinks is not decent is a prostitute. We are saying we have had enough,” Njemanze told CNN.
In 2012, she was arrested by officers of the task force and accused of prostitution alongside three other women. She was never formally charged and she challenged the arrest in a lawsuit against the Nigerian government.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) ruled in 2017 that the arrest was unlawful and violated her right to freedom of liberty.
Njemanze was awarded 6 million naira in damages (approximately $16,000).
“Seeing this happening all over after again, after all I have gone through and lost is very traumatizing,” Njemanze told CNN.