Nigeria’s army freed 267 detainees Friday, including dozens of children, some as young as preschoolers, saying that investigators had determined they had no links to Boko Haram Islamic extremists.
Only eight suspects were handed over to police for further investigation, commanding officer Maj. Gen. Haruna Umaru told a ceremony at a military barracks in the northeastern city of Maiduguri.
He said the releases should reassure Nigerians that “no individual will unjustly or unduly be incarcerated.” He said the Nigerian military remains “committed to the protection of the fundamental rights of every citizen of Nigeria and foreigners alike.”
Nigerian law requires that anyone arrested be charged before a magistrate within 48 hours and have access to a lawyer. But the military continues to hold people incommunicado, including foreigners, and the exact number still held is not known.
Four people from neighboring Cameroon and Niger were among those released Friday, along with 72 children. Nigerian security forces regularly detain the children of suspects. Glum, weary-looking detainees gathered under a tent for the ceremony, including a malnourished boy dressed only in an oversized T-shirt.
The lone smile came from 21-year-old Hauwa Mohammed, who told The Associated Press she had been held for six months on suspicion of being the girlfriend of a Boko Haram fighter. She said she had gotten sick in detention and wanted to concentrate on taking care of her health.
None of those released would discuss the conditions they were held in, apparently fearful of the nearby soldiers.
Amnesty International has charged that Nigeria’s military is responsible for the deaths of some 8,000 detainees between 2011 and 2015 — some shot outright and others dying of torture, starvation or asphyxiation in overcrowded cells. The military has denied the charges.
Still, President Muhammadu Buhari has not made good on promises to investigate Amnesty’s allegations and its recommendation that nine senior officers be investigated for possible war crimes in the detainee deaths.
At Friday’s ceremony, Borno state Gov. Kashim Shettima said the detainees’ release “bears testimony to the fact that we are running a professional force, contrary to insinuations from several quarters, insinuations of extra-judicial killings, arbitrary detention and the dehumanization of the citizenry.”
Associated Press writer Michelle Faul contributed to this report from Lagos, Nigeria.