Amnesty says Nigerian military killed hundreds of minority Shiite Muslims

The Nigerian Army has been repeatedly accused of killing innocent civilians in their war against Boko Haram, but military officials maintain that the troops have acted appropriately.

Sunday Alamba/AP/File
Nigerian Shiite Muslims take to the street to protest and demanded the release of Shiite leader Ibraheem Zakzaky in Cikatsere, Nigeria. Nigeria's Kaduna state government has said it secretly buried hundreds of minority Shiite Muslims in a mass grave, after the victims were killed in Army raids.

The Nigerian military is again under scrutiny for allegations that it carried out systematic killings of hundreds of civilians, following a similar report in March. 

A new report by Amnesty International sheds light into the killings of some 350 minority Shiite Muslims – men, women, and children – in Zaria, a town in northern Nigeria. The human rights group released a report based on eyewitness accounts and satellite images detailing large-scale killings and a mass grave.

Between Dec. 12 and 14, 2015, the Nigerian Army clashed with members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) who had gathered for a religious meeting. Some of the IMN members were armed with batons, knives, and machetes, and closed a section of road in front of the IMN headquarters in Zaria, blocking the Army chief's convoy. The military said they raided the city after the members of IMN attempted to assassinate the Army chief.

The religious-political organization has denied that claim, saying they had armed themselves only in self defense. IMN is a major Shiite sect in Nigeria, where a majority of Muslims – who make up roughly half of the country's 170 million population – are Sunni. IMN members have found themselves targeted by Boko Haram as it wages its war on the Northern part of the country.

"The true horror of what happened over those two days in Zaria is only now coming to light.... Our research, based on witness testimonies and analysis of satellite images, has located one possible mass grave. It is time now for the military to come clean and admit where it secretly buried hundreds of bodies," wrote Netsanet Belay, Amnesty's research and advocacy director for Africa.

Amnesty has previously accused the Army of targeting civilians during its war against terror group Boko Haram. The group's reports, such as a March publication claiming that officers systematically killed hundreds of men and boys after a jailbreak during a Boko Haram attack, maintain that the Army's treatment of civilians has been unlawful, which the Army denies. 

"The massacre at Giwa and the failure to hold anyone to account for it is a stark reminder of the culture of impunity that exists for human rights violations in Nigeria," Amnesty said in a statement accompanying the March report. "The horrific acts committed by Boko Haram must end and perpetrators of crimes under international law in its ranks must be punished. But their horrific acts cannot and should not be used to justify the Nigerian military's unlawful conduct and human rights violations."

The Nigerian government has been very critical of Amnesty's reports, including the one that was released Friday. Defense spokesman Brigadier General Rabe Abubakar called Amnesty's report "unfair," saying that the military had not been consulted before its publication.

"The NGO should understand that Nigeria is a sovereign nation and it should be respected," a military spokesman told The Guardian. "Already, a judicial inquiry is in place in addition to investigation by the National Human Rights Commission. The NGO's hasty report – if true – is against the principles of the Amnesty International itself as it is pre-emptive and judgemental. They must allow the judicial commission of inquiry and all other relevant agencies to complete and submit their reports before jumping to conclusion."

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