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Rights Group Calls for Investigation Into Alleged Nigerian Police Brutality

U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch has called for an independent public inquiry into the Nigerian police force who, by their own calculations, say police officers killed more than 8,000 Nigerians since 2000. The police say the dead are armed robbers and laud their deaths as a successful crack down on crime. Human Rights Watch says the circumstances of death are murky and Nigerian police routinely torture suspects and have carried out numerous extrajudicial killings. Sarah Simpson reports from the Nigerian commercial capital of Lagos, where residents want to see gun crime brought under control but are fearful of the police and their methods.

Armed robbery in Nigeria's commercial capital, Lagos, is prevalent. Of the shopkeepers, motorbike-taxi drivers and customers at the busy Falomo Shopping center, only one man, Jacob Onabe, says he has escaped such an ordeal. He says only God can account for his good fortune.

"Maybe it is by God's favor. Maybe the love of God has done it for me that I have not experienced that before," Onabe said.

Although Onabe escaped being victim of an armed robbery, he did fall victim to a corrupt police officer.

Onabe, who drives a motorbike taxi known as an okada, says he had to pay a policeman 200 naira, or about $1.50 U.S., to get back his keys from the officer.

"He was even asking me to pay bill of 700 Naira or he would take my bike from me. I had to plead him and beg him," Onabe said. "It was very early - around five or six in the morning - so I pleaded with him and he refused. I had to give him 200 Naira for no crime committed. I did not steal, I did not insult him or harass him."

New York-based Human Rights Watch says that it's not just the high crime that is of issue in Nigeria. Police corruption is also a problem. As a result, the group is calling on the Nigerian government to open an independent inquiry into the number of people shot by the police.

The probe comes days after Nigeria's chief of police announced that his forces had killed 785 suspected armed robbers in the three months since he took office.

Human Rights Watch is skeptical that all those killed were actually armed robbers. They say the deaths make a mockery of recently-elected President Umaru Yar'Adua's vow to uphold the rule of law.

Political Analyst, Charles Dokubo, says the deaths may have been orchestrated by corrupt police officers.

"If it has taken place in Nigeria, it is not with the coordination or the acceptance of the government in power," Dokubo said. "It has been done by some misguided policemen who decided to take the law into their hands."

But, Nigerian police spokesman Haz Iwendi says the real injustice was the loss of life incurred by police in carrying out their duties.

"I expected you to have complained about the 62 number of policemen it has never happened in the world," Iwendi said. "And that is what we lost in the pursuit, in the fight against armed robbery."

Human Rights Watch claims Nigerian police are documented to have carried out numerous extra judicial killings as well as torture suspects. And, the U.N. last year accused police of torturing detained suspects to extract confessions.

At Falomo Shopping Center Joseph Egbe, who sells fish from a battered old chest freezer, says he is as frightened of police as he is of armed robbers.

"Police, their ways of behavior is no different with the armed robbers!," Egbe said.

Helen Sunday looks after her family's beverage store. She was robbed last week when gunmen held up the mini-bus she took home from work. She did not report the matter to the police.

"Hmm, the police would not do anything. They will not do anything at all. They will say 'Ah, sorry-o!'. That is what they will tell you," Sunday said.

Despite booming oil earnings, the majority of Nigerians live in poverty. Analysts say increased wages and better training for police could ease corruption, while increased job opportunities for youths could bring down crime levels.