Boko Haram suspects finally get their day in court


The prosecution only called one witness against Abba Umar. He said the defendant, if released, would likely go back to Boko Haram’s hideout in the Sambisa forest in northeast Nigeria.

But Umar had already done himself no favors. He had pleaded not guilty, yet described himself as an “Islamic warrior” and a “commander of the Islamic army.”

Curious faces peered around the door or through the window to catch a glimpse of the defendant, who like the hundreds of others was barefoot and wearing orange overalls.

Seemingly inevitably, the judge found him guilty and sentenced him to five lengthy prison terms.

Boko Haram’s bloody quest to establish a hard-line Islamic state in remote northeast Nigeria over the last nine years has its own grim accounting.

At least 20,000 have been killed and more than 2.6 million others made homeless by violence that has spilled across the border into Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

Nigeria has arrested as Boko Haram suspects 1,669 people — mostly men, but also some women and children.

Nigeria was widely criticized for holding them and thousands of other civilians for years without even a sight of a lawyer or a courtroom.

Held at the Kainji barracks in central Niger state, their cases finally began last October, initially behind closed doors at four specially-constituted civilian courts at the army facility.

This week, access restrictions were lifted and the media and public got a rare first glimpse of those being held — and the charges against them.

On Monday, defendants included Haruna Yahaya, who was jailed for 15 years for involvement in the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in 2014. The 35-year-old disabled former trader, who said he was forced to fight for the jihadis, was one of 20 people convicted and sentenced Monday.

Umar was one of 42 cases dealt with Tuesday.

Some, like Mohammed Hussain, identified as a Boko Haram commander, pleaded guilty to involvement in attacks in Yobe and Borno states. He was jailed for 20 years.

Last October, he said he had no regrets.

“If I die today, I am fulfilled and I know I will go straight to heaven because I have done my bit of what Allah wants me to do, which is to kill the “kaffirs” (unbelievers) in our midst,” he was reported as saying.

Questions have been raised about the ability of Nigeria’s overburdened justice system to cope with so many defendants, and the standard of investigations and evidence.

The government has said 468 people were released after it was found they had no case to answer; 45 were jailed for between two and 15 years; 28 had their cases transferred.

A further 82 pleaded guilty in exchange for a lesser prison sentence or release, taking into account time served in custody.

The remaining detainees waiting to hear their fate were brought out of detention to sit outside the courtrooms under canopies until their cases were called.

Lawyers from the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria were on hand to prepare their defense.

How long the process will last is anyone’s guess, admitted one prosecutor. But even then, there are more cases to be heard elsewhere.

“Our next port of call, after we are finally done with Kainji, is Maiduguri, where we have about 4,000 suspects waiting,” said the lawyer.