Nigerian police fired apparently unlawfully on a peaceful protest by the Shia Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) in the capital, Abuja, on July 22, 2019, Human Rights Watch said today.
Eleven protesters, a journalist, and a police officer were killed, while dozens of others were wounded or arrested, according to witnesses and authorities. The Shia movement was protesting the detention since 2015 of their leader, Sheikh Ibrahim El Zakzaky, and calling for the authorities to allow him proper medical care. Parliament shut down for an afternoon after a July 9 protest by the group at the Nigerian National Assembly.
“The Nigerian police’s apparent rush to use firearms against Shia movement protesters is unlawful and counterproductive,” said Anietie Ewang, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should bring an end to their violent crackdown on the Shia Islamic Movement in Nigeria, and investigate the excessive use of force by the police.”
The July 22 protest began at about 12:30 p.m., when several thousand protesters marched toward the Federal Government Secretariat to register their grievances. As they approached the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Nigerian Police Force opened fire and threw teargas at the protesters, said Mohammed Ibrahim Gamawa, a member of the Resource Forum, an IMN-associated group.
Gamawa said he saw the police shoot two women and two men and that the women were shot in the head. A local journalist said he saw 11 bodies of protesters who had been shot. The Shia movement also said that about 11 had died.
At least 30 members of the group were injured, Gamawa said. He said that in many cases, hospital staff wouldn't treat gunshot wounds unless the victims first presented a police report, to ensure the police are notified of gun incidents.
"They started shooting toward us, at everyone - they didn't care who the bullets hit," said a 26-year-old University of Abuja student. "A bullet hit my left leg, and I was carried away by my brothers in the movement." He said that he participated in the march with his friends until policemen opened fire on the group. He said he went to the university hospital's emergency room but left when police arrived to arrest protesters. "We have changed our location twice because we're afraid of the police. The bullet is still in my leg; I think my leg is broken. I feel so much pain all over my body."
A 20-year-old protester said that he was shot in the ankle. He was afraid he would be arrested if he went to the hospital, so he was being treated in hiding by friends with medical training.
The Nigerian broadcaster Channels Television Station reported that a stray bullet killed one of their journalists covering the protest, Precious Owolabi.
The police issued a statement on July 22 confirming the death of Deputy Commissioner of Police Usman A.K Umar, who the police claim was shot by the protesters. The statement said that two other senior police officials were also injured by protesters who “violently attacked innocent citizens and Police personnel on duty” and “also razed down a National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) Response Post close to the Federal Secretariat, Abuja and two (2) vehicles.”
The Shia movement denied all allegations of violence by their members who took part in the protest. They alleged that the police were responsible for the deaths of Deputy Commissioner Umar and the reporter.
The police announced that they had arrested 54 IMN members since the protest. They are currently “under interrogation” but have not been charged.
Nigerian security forces should abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, Human Rights Watch said. The Basic Principles state that security forces shall “apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms,” and that whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, security forces should exercise restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense and the legitimate objective to be achieved. They should also minimize injury and preserve human life. The intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made “when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.” The Basic Principles further provide that in cases of death or serious injury, “a detailed report shall be sent promptly to the competent authorities.”
Nigerian judicial officials and the National Human Rights Commission should carry out credible, impartial investigations into the violence during the July 22 protest, Human Rights Watch said. Those responsible for the unlawful use of force should be brought to justice in fair trials. Authorities should immediately release protesters who were arbitrarily arrested and who have not been charged with a credible offense, and they should ensure that all injured protesters have safe access to urgent medical care.
Nigerian authorities have used excessive force against Islamic Movement in Nigeria protests since 2015, Human Rights Watch said. On December 12, 2015, the Nigerian army used excessive force against the group’s street procession in Zaria, Kaduna State, in northwest Nigeria, allegedly to clear the way for the army chief’s convoy. In an ensuing three-day crackdown, the army killed 347 members of the group and arrested hundreds more, including the group’s leader, El Zakzaky, and his wife, Ibraheemat.
In September 2016, a Kaduna State Judicial Commission of Inquiry recommended prosecuting soldiers involved in the Zaria killings. State prosecutors ignored that recommendation. However, they brought charges against 177 members of the Shia movement for the killing of Cpl. Dan Kaduna Yakubu, the only military casualty in the incident.
IMN representatives allege that subsequent crackdowns on the group’s activities and protests in Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Yobe, Plateau, Sokoto, and Abuja calling for justice and the release of their leader have resulted in the deaths of at least 110 people.
In one of the most violent incidents, in October 2018 soldiers opened fire on large groups of Shia protesters in Abuja, killing at least 42 IMN members during three days of protests, according to the group.
Human Rights Watch confirmed that at least 21 people were fatally shot during the violence in Karu, Abuja on October 29.
“Nigerian authorities should put an end to using excessive and lethal force against processions and protesters,” Ewang said. “Those responsible for the latest deadly crackdown on Shia movement members, as well as the earlier bloody incidents, should be fairly brought to justice.”