ENUGU, NIGERIA - The Nigerian military has detained thousands of children in harsh and degrading conditions for suspected involvement with the armed Islamist group Boko Haram, Human Rights Watch said in a report released Tuesday.
The report documents how Nigerian authorities are detaining children as young as five years old, usually with little or no evidence linking them to Boko Haram terrorists.
In June 2019, Human Rights Watch interviewed 32 formerly-detained children and youth in Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria's Borno State and the city where Boko Haram got started in 2001.
The children who spoke to the group said they were picked up by authorities and detained in the state's main military detention center, Giwa barracks.
A 2016 Amnesty International report described Giwa barracks as a place of death.
Scores of detainees have died there, many seemingly from disease, hunger, dehydration and gunshots wounds.
Seventeen-year-old Abdul described the room where he was kept.
"The room smelled awful," he said. "When we first arrived, there was no toilet in the room. We had to defecate in a bucket, in front of everyone, as well as urinate standing in the same room we slept in."
Khadija, a soft-spoken and petite 14-year old, was also detained.
"We really suffered [in prison]," she said. "It's a deep kind of suffering. They [the army] didn't take care of us, and they kept beating me. Lice in our hair, lice on our body."
Children say they also saw male soldiers making sexual advances to some of the female detainees, even removing them from the cell for long periods of time. One girl told Human Rights Watch that girls in her cell became pregnant while they were imprisoned.
Reaction from Nigeria
In a statement Tuesday, a Nigerian military spokesman said the report is poorly researched and false.
Colonel Onyema Nwachukwu said the Armed Forces of Nigeria do arrest children who are coerced into helping Boko Haram, either by setting off explosives or spying for the terrorist group.
But, he said, the armed forces treat the children "as victims of war and not as suspects." He said that "apprehended children are kept in secured places, where they are adequately fed, profiled and de-radicalized before their release."
He added that children are not subject to arbitrary arrests nor are they tortured in any facility.
Jo Becker, the director of children's rights advocacy at Human Rights Watch, said Nigerian authorities are breaching international standards. None of the children have appeared in court.
"International standards are clear that when children are involved in armed conflict, they are entitled to rehabilitation, reintegration and help getting back into their community and into civilian life," Becker said. "They don't belong in military detention. Nigeria has programs that are ready to deal with these children."
In its ongoing war against the Nigerian government, Boko Haram has terrorized the northeast for 10 years in an insurgency that seeks to establish an Islamic State.
More than 37,000 people have been killed in the insurgency, including at least 15,000 civilians.
The U.N. estimates that Boko Haram has recruited at least 8,000 children into its ranks, often through abduction.
Source: Voice of America