Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group has demanded the release of the leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, IMN, Sheik Ibraheem El Zakzaky, and his wife, Zeenatudeen.
The group also called on government to exercise constraint when engaging members of the Movement.
It described government action against the group as repressive which it said began with a three-day lethal crackdown on December 12-14, 2015.
Sheik Ibraheem El Zakzaky, leader of the IMN, and his wife, Zeenatudeen, have been detained without trial for a year. On December 12, 2015, the Nigeria army used disproportionate force against the group’s street procession in Zaria, Kaduna State in northwestern Nigeria to clear a route for the army chief’s convoy.
The Huma Rights Group recalled that in an ensuing three-day violent crackdown, the army killed 347 members of the group and injured and arrested scores more, adding that the violence against the group continued in a series of episodes in October and November 2016.
In a statement Mausi Segun, senior Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch said, “The involvement of soldiers in the Zaria incidents, and subsequent police actions against the Islamic Movement raises major questions about Nigeria’s commitment to military reform,”.
“The Kaduna state government’s continued repression of the group without holding the attackers responsible turns justice on its head.”
He said the Nigerian authorities should hold accountable anyone who has committed crimes against the Islamic Movement members, and take immediate steps to comply with a federal court order mandating the release of Sheik El Zakzaky and his wife, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch had in December 2015 reported that the killings were unjustified and called for an independent and impartial investigation into the carnage.
The statement further noted that, “A judicial commission of inquiry, appointed to investigate the events, found that the army used “excessive force” against protesters and was responsible for the deaths and mass burial of the 347 members of the group and recommended the prosecution of soldiers involved in the killings.
The commission also recommended holding Islamic Movement members responsible for their “acts of habitual lawlessness,” and said that El Zakzaky bore responsibility for failing to call his followers to order when requested to do so.
According to the statement, In a White Paper responding to the report released on December 5, 2016, the Kaduna State government unilaterally declared the Islamic Movement to be an insurgent group against which the army was justified in using lethal force. Contrary to the commission’s findings, the state government stated that soldiers who shot at protesters, laid siege to religious sites belonging to the group, killed 347 members and buried them in unmarked mass graves, acted according to the army’s rules of operation.
The Rights Group regretted that the Kaduna State government has sought the death penalty against 50 members of the group facing trial for the death of the only military casualty in the episode, Corporal Dan Kaduna Yakubu, but exempted the army from any responsibility for the killings of the Islamic Movement members, and no-one has been held responsible for the deaths.
The Group further noted that on October 7, the state government banned the Islamic Movement, citing the commission of inquiry’s finding that the group was unregistered a move that have triggered a wave of police and mob violence against the group’s members participating in its annual religious processions, and the destruction of their properties in Kaduna as well as neighboring Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Plateau, and Sokoto States, where the police followed the Kaduna example of banning activities of the group.
The statement regretted that hundreds of the group’s members have remained in prison since the Zaria incident and subsequent arrests during religious processions and protest marches to demand their leaders’ release.
A few detainees, mostly women and children, were released but most others have been arraigned in courts in Kaduna, Kano, and Jos for offenses including disturbing public peace, incitement, unlawful assembly, and homicide, it said.
The Group warned that the pattern of violent repressive conduct against the group may violate Nigeria’s constitution, which guarantees the rights to life; personal liberty; freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; peaceful assembly and association; and freedom of movement.
It noted further that Nigeria may also be in breach of its obligations under African regional and international human rights law to protect these rights.
“Nigeria’s federal and state authorities should reconsider the heavy-handed crackdown against IMN members, take urgent steps to protect them, and hold those responsible for the unlawful deaths of group members to account,”.
“The government should carry out its law enforcement responsibilities without jeopardizing its own credibility by ignoring court decisions that rightly seek to check its agents’ excesses, ” the statement said.