Red flags over unprecedented Boko Haram mass trials
Publish date: 09 October 2017
Issue Number: 746
Diary: IBA Legalbrief Africa
More than 2 300 suspected members of the jihadist group Boko Haram are expected to begin appearing in courtrooms across Nigeria this week in a series of unprecedented mass trials. Legalbrief reports that the Nigerian authorities are hoping that the hearings – which will be held behind closed doors – will demonstrate that the battered nation is winning the fight against one of the continent’s most vicious insurgencies. Over the past eight years, about 20 000 have been killed in the country's remote north-east. To date, just 13 people have been put on trial and only nine convicted for their links to the Islamist insurgency, according to official figures. The most high-profile current case is that of Khalid Al-Barnawi, a leader of the Boko Haram offshoot Ansaru, who is charged with the abduction and murder of 10 foreign nationals. A report on the News24 site notes that Nigeria's Justice Ministry announced the start of the trials at the end of last month. About 1 670 detainees at a military base in Kainji, in the central state of Niger, will be tried first followed by 651 others held at the Giwa barracks in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State in the north-east.
Analysts say the trials – which will be held in secret and will see four judges deal with hundreds of cases each – raise serious concerns and could undermine the fight against the group. ‘Does the judiciary have the capacity to give so many people charged with very serious offences a fair trial? Have the authorities really captured a quarter of their combat strength? Are they taking into account the fact that a lot of those who committed violence for Boko Haram did so under duress? All these are red flags and very concerning in terms of the broader strategy,’ said analyst Ryan Cummings. The Guardian reports that Umar Ado, a defence lawyer based in Kano, Nigeria’s largest northern city, expressed concern that no media reporting of the hearings is to be allowed. ‘It sends the wrong signal that justice is not served or the process is compromised,’ he said. Matthew Page, a former US State Department analyst and a specialist on Nigeria, said the process was positive but only a ‘very small step’, as many of the detainees had been held in custody for years without access to a lawyer or ever having appeared before a judge.
Nigerian lawyer Mohammed Tola was surprised when relatives of several Boko Haram fighters began calling his office a few months ago to ask him to defend them. A report on the allAfrica site notes that Tola's firm, situated in the centre of Abuja specialises in criminal law, but he and his colleagues have had little experience with terrorism trials to date. Nevertheless, he agreed to represent them. He said the suspected terrorists have the right to a fair trial. ‘If public opinion was the only thing that mattered, we would never have fair trials,’ he added.