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Recent trials carried out in central Niger state have led to the release of 475 people suspected of affiliation with Islamist organization Boko Haram. The trials form part of Nigeria’s biggest legal investigation of the terrorist organization, and a lack of sufficient evidence has been cited as the dominant reason behind releases. Some individuals had been held since 2010 without trial or access to a lawyer and will be released to their home states for rehabilitation.
More than 1600 people have been processed since October, and of these some 65 members of Boko Haram have been convicted, receiving sentences of between 2 and 31 years. Included amongst those convicted is Haruna Yahaya, the first person to receive a prison sentence for involvement in the Chibok schoolgirl kidnappings of 2014.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari says violence perpetrated by Boko Haram is “gradually drawing to end”, however, the current leader of the organization, Abubakar Shekau, remains at large and suicide bomber attacks perpetrated by the group continue to devastate the northeast of the country. Osai Ojigho, the director of Amnesty International Nigeria has expressed concern with the trials, stating “Mass trials of this nature provide insufficient guarantees for a fair trial and risk failing to realize justice.”
Although the trials represent an attempt in the process of reducing and eventually eliminating the influence of Boko Haram in Nigeria, they have also served to bring to light alleged human rights violations. Al Jazeera reports that amongst those released is a girl who had been taken to a Boko Haram enclave by her brother at the age of 11 and forced to marry a member of the organization. She had been detained since 2014 when she was arrested while attempting to flee Boko Haram and has been released from custody alongside her three-month-old baby.
Others share similar stories of being forced into association with Boko Haram. According to Amnesty International, at least 340 detainees died in custody last year at Giwa barracks, a military detention centre near Maiduguri in northeastern Nigeria. The facility was allegedly overcrowded, with detainees subject to dehydration, starvation, and disease. A spokesperson from the Nigerian military, John Agim, has responded to these claims, arguing that they are unsubstantiated and do not accurately reflect the conditions experienced by detainees.
While Boko Haram formed in 2002, the current insurgency commenced in 2009 with the goal of establishing an Islamic state. The organization operates predominantly in northeast Nigeria but is also active in northern Cameroon, Niger and Chad. The Guardian reports that since 2009, more than 20 000 people have been killed as a result of militant actions undertaken by the group, and a further 2 million have been displaced, having been forced to flee their homes in northeastern Nigeria. The formal trials of Boko Haram suspects began in October 2017 and were carried out in secret, without the presence of journalists or public observers. The recent trials are a continuation of these proceedings.
The trials have been considered by some to be problematic, with accusations that investigation techniques employed have been inadequate. Furthermore, the decision to host trials away from public scrutiny has been argued as potentially representing an obstruction to the passage of justice. Despite this, they may also exist as a long overdue step towards establishing stability and peace in a country ravaged by the ongoing militant rebellion. Looking to the future, it is important that the rehabilitation resources available to those who have been recently released are adequate, and allow proper reintegration into society in order to minimize the hardships experienced by those wrongfully subjected to lengthy detention.