Sect members cannot be compelled to appear before panel, says chairman
Senator Iroegbu in Abuja and John Shiklam in Kaduna
The Amnesty International (AI) has called on the Nigerian military to give a convincing account on the alleged killings of 347 Shi’ites during the clash it had with members of Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) on December 12 last year in Zaria, Kaduna State.
The AI Nigeria in a statement made available yesterday by its Media Manager, Mr. Abdulrazaque Bello Barkindo, called for proper investigations into the reported killings.
The rights group demanded that the “revelations of the slaughter and secret burial of 347 members of the Shiite religious group in mass graves by the army must be urgently investigated, and anyone suspected of criminal responsibility for these crimes must be brought to trial.”
According to AI, the acknowledgment of the extrajudicial killings which took place between December 12 and 14, 2015 in Zaria, were made by a Kaduna State government official at a public hearing of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry and echoes its findings.
This stand was re-echoed by the Country Director of AI Nigeria, Mohammed Ibrahim, saying: “The horrific revelation by the state government that hundreds of Shiites were gunned down and dumped in mass graves is an important first step to bringing all those suspected of criminal responsibility for this atrocity to trial.
“It is now imperative that the mass grave sites are protected in order that a full independent forensic investigation can begin. The bodies must be exhumed and Nigerian authorities should immediately reveal the whereabouts of those held in unacknowledged detention and either charge or release them.”
The AI said it has been conducting research in the Zaria killings since January 2016, adding that a “comprehensive report will be published in the near future.”
The global human rights watchdog had also in a statement last year, called for urgent investigation to the clashes between the Nigerian Army and members of a Shiite religious group in Zaria, demanding that anyone found responsible for unlawful killings must be brought to justice.
Ibrahim was then reported to have said: “Firearms should only be used as a last resort, if strictly unavoidable, in order to protect life. It is crucial that the authorities refrain from using excessive force and ensure that anyone responsible for unlawful killings is brought to justice in fair trials.
According to him, Nigerian security forces have a history of carrying out unlawful killings and other human rights violations.
He alleged that in the course of security operations against Boko Haram, Nigerian military forces had committed serious human rights violations, war crimes and acts which might constitute crimes against humanity in North-east.
Meanwhile, the Chairman of the commission, Justice Muhammad Garba Lawal, said the the Islamic group cannot be compelled to appear before the commission.
Recall that the Islamic group had withdrawn its appearance demanding the release of its leader, Sheikh Ibraheem Zakzaky, alleging also that some members of the commission were anti-Shiite.
The refusal of the group to appear before the commission and the decision of the commission to go ahead with its work without hearing the group’s side of the story during the clashes has raised questions about fairness in the investigation.
However, in an interview with journalists yesterday in Kaduna, Justice Lawal said the commission had been fair to all the parties involved in the clashes by asking them to come and present their stories, declaring that the commission cannot compel anyone who chooses not appear before it.
He explained that the commission is only required to provide the opportunity to the parties to come and present their sides of the story and does not have the power to compel anyone to come.
“Let me state the commitment of this commission to give fair hearing as enshrined in the constitution of Nigeria to all the parties involved in the Zaria clashes.
“The provision is that all the parties shall be given adequate opportunity, which is reasonable in the circumstances of the assignment, to present their own side of the story.
“The commission is only required to provide the opportunity to the parties to come and present their sides of the story and because the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) is a party that is directly involved, the commission under the law does not have the power to compel it to come and state its side.”
According to him, “We cannot compel, we cannot force a party to come even if you bring him before the commission to say his own side of the story, if he doesn’t want to say so, you cannot compel him.
“So, the idea of fair hearing is not that a party must come or you must wait for a party or that if a party doesn’t come, you cannot go on and achieve justice because he decided not to utilise the opportunity granted to him or her for a fair hearing,” he said.
He said further that the commission had waited for the Islamic Movement to see that it solves its initial problem of not having access to its leader, Sheikh Zakzaky, who has been in detention since the December clashes, adding that it was the commission that facilitated IMN’s access to their leader.
Speaking further, Justice Lawal said: “Before the Commission facilitated that access, the IMN had no other way of having access to him, but in line with the principle of having all the parties given the opportunity of a fair hearing, the Commission spent the whole initial time allotted to it to facilitate and ensuring that they solve the problem.
“The only problem their lawyer told us was to get access to the IMN leader and we facilitated the access eventually.
The IMN lawyers, through the effort of the commission met the leader of the IMN and the counsel to the commission also met him.
“The effort initially had been counsel to the Commission, and the counsel to the IMN would go at the same time to see the leader of the IMN. At the appointed day, the counsel to the IMN did not show up for the appointment to see their leader, and they did not send any communication to excuse the absence to see the leader.
“It was at that point that our own counsel was allowed to have access to the leader of the IMN who he saw and who he had discussion with and he reported during one of our proceedings, that the leader of IMN said he was not even aware that a Commission was set up in the first place and that he was interested in having the opportunity to come before the Commission to state his own side of the story of what happened in Zaria
“It was on that basis again that we decided to provide another opportunity for the counsels to the IMN to go and see the leader so that he can tell them this so that they will come and know the next step to take in the proceedings.
“Later on the counsels to the IMN accepted the effort of the Commission, met with their leader and it was reported that the leader of the IMN had met with counsels, and he said that they should not appear before this Commission, that they should go to the regular court and enforce his fundamental rights.
“Now, the principle of fair hearing like I said, only requires that the Commission should give adequate opportunity to all the parties that are going to appear.
“In law, it will not frustrate or forestall the assignment of the Commission because we are looking for facts, it is not only the IMN that is going to be part of what happened in Zaria on December12 to 14, 2015. There are other stakeholders who know what happened,” he said.