Last week, the IRCT and Independent Forensic Expert Group had the pleasure of facilitating a capacity building workshop (on Supporting Adequate Reparations for Victims and Effective Investigation and Documentation by the State Independent Investigative Panel on Human Rights Violations Against the Defunct SARS) aimed at assisting the members of the State Independent Investigative Panel on Human Rights Violations Against the Defunct Special Anti-Robbery Squad and other specialised units of the Nigeria Police. The webinar, organised in collaboration with PRAWA, IRCT’s member centre based in Nigeria, and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), took place on 19 January 2021 and succeeded in attracting around 80 members of the recently formed Panel.
In 1992, the Nigeria Police Force set up the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, commonly referred to as SARS, as a tactical policing unit tasked with counteracting armed robberies and violent crime. Over the years, however, the Squad came to replicate the very criminal gangs it was hoped it would eradicate. Working in plain clothes and unmarked cars, its members carried out countless arbitrary arrests, acts of torture and extrajudicial killings. Principally, the group would target and detain young men found carrying laptops or smartphones on suspicion of internet fraud, and force them to make cash withdrawals at gunpoint. The Squad equally targeted young women, many of whom they raped in detention. Their abuses are so prolific that virtually all Nigerians have a close relation that has been the victim of their crimes.
In October 2020, multiple witnesses released video footage of their brutal acts against civilians online which ignited a wave of youth-led anti-SARS protests. This quickly culminated in the state declaring the Squad formally dissolved. Yet, for many Nigerians, this action only aroused suspicion. Throughout 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019, the state made similar commitments to reform SARS to no effect. What’s more, without accountability, the public cannot help but be concerned that its members will be quietly integrated into another police unit. In response, the NHRC has instated an Independent Investigation Panel on Human Rights Violations to examine the public’s allegations against the now defunct Squad. To date, the Panel has already received 300 claims and counting from victims of torture and ill-treatment.
This opportunity to share IRCT’s expertise and explore how it might support the Panel is the product of the close ongoing partnership between IRCT and PRAWA. Over the course of the event, the event’s moderators, Hilary Ogbonna of the NHRC and Ogechi Ogu, Deputy Director of PRAWA, called upon the members of the Panel to reflect upon the IRCT’s experiences and how these might inform their response to the challenges they face in investigating and addressing torture.
One major challenge raised by the participants is the matter of establishing reparations for victims. The Executive Director of PRAWA, Dr. Uju Agomoh, highlighted that the Panel will face victims who do not wish to make torture claims, but who do want to access their right to rehabilitation. Others might be more concerned with receiving compensation, without which they cannot support themselves and their families. Ultimately, as the IRCT’s Head of Advocacy Asger Kjærum observed, the decision as to whether to share their story or raise claims ought to remain the victim’s prerogative.
A second challenge shared by some attendees is encouraging victims to cooperate with the Panel and testify coherently. Hilary Ogbonna emphasised the vital importance of victim participation and thoroughly documenting the SARS’ brutal actions to guarantee that such incidents will not be repeated in Nigeria. The IRCT’s Istanbul Protocol Programme Coordinator, James Lin, emphasized IRCT’s ability to guide the Panel on how to conduct effective interviews, examine the best practices of other international courts and tribunals and, additionally, to inform the effective documentation of these incidents in Nigeria, as the IRCT has repeatedly done in other contexts.
This workshop marks only the beginning of the IRCT’s ongoing support to the Independent Investigative Panel over the course of the coming months. Our expansive body of expertise on the physical and psychological consequences of torture and ample training resources relating to the Istanbul Protocol should prove a critical resource in this process.
Ultimately, the workshop’s closing words were offered by PRAWA's Executive Director who commended the NHRC’s ongoing efforts during this period of momentous change in Nigerian governance: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a step. With these panels we have certainly taken a step in the right direction.”