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Families of Kidnap Victims Reject Nigerian Bill Punishing Ransom Payments


FILE - The belongings of students of Bethel Baptist High School are scattered on school premises as parents of abducted students hope for their return, in the Chikun Local Government Area of Kaduna state, northwest Nigeria, July 14, 2021.

Relatives of kidnap victims in Nigeria have expressed concerns about a bill passed the Nigerian Senate on Wednesday that would outlaw ransom payments for someone's release.

Paul Mshelia, the father of a kidnap victim, was alerted by phone of an attack at a forestry college in Kaduna state the morning of March 12, 2021. His caller told him that his son, who is a student at the school, and 38 others had been taken away by armed gangs.

Mshelia says it was a difficult moment for his family.

"The experience we have passed through with my wife is still affecting me psychologically," he said. "Till today, at 4 a.m. when the day is breaking, I remember the experience. I'll wake up from sleep and won't go back to sleep."

Mshelia's family and the parents of other kidnapped students say that after weeks of negotiations, they paid about $100,000 to secure the release of their children.

FILE - Nigerian soldiers and police officers stand at the entrance of a forestry college in Kaduna state, on March 12, 2021, after a kidnap gang stormed the school.
FILE - Nigerian soldiers and police officers stand at the entrance of a forestry college in Kaduna state, on March 12, 2021, after a kidnap gang stormed the school.

They negotiated despite warnings from Nigerian authorities not to give in to pressure from the kidnappers.

This week, the Nigerian Senate approved an amendment to the country's terrorism law that would outlaw ransom payments. Anyone who paid ransom could face up to 15 years in prison.

The bill also proposes the death penalty for convicted kidnappers when the abduction leads to loss of life, and life imprisonment in other instances.

Authorities warn that paying ransom was only making kidnappers emboldened and hope the bill will address the spate of kidnappings.

But Mshelia disagrees.

"To me, it's out of context because I don't think it's going to solve any problem," he said. "Even if you jail somebody today and this kidnapping continues, people will still go out of their way to pay."

The bill still needs approval from the lower house of parliament and from President Muhammadu Buhari before it becomes law.

Authorities in northern Nigeria are struggling to contain armed gangs who are on a kidnapping spree and have earned huge sums of money through ransom payments.

Human rights lawyer Martin Obono says the government is shifting responsibility by criminalizing ransom payment by citizens.

"This is government actually trying to shift the post. If you're now saying that you want to criminalize ransom payment, who's going to criminalize government's failure to provide or guarantee my own security?" Obono said.

According to a report by Lagos-based risk analysis firm SB Morgen Intelligence, at least $18.3 million in ransom was paid to Nigerian kidnappers between 2011 and 2020.

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