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Nigeria Tries 1,600 Boko Haram Suspects


FILE - A prisoner, suspected of being a member of insurgent group Boko Haram, sits with his arms tied behind his back in the field base of Chadian soldiers in Gambaru, Nigeria, Feb. 26, 2015.

The largest trial of Boko Haram suspects in the history of Nigeria's ongoing fight against the terrorist group is under way at a military barracks in the north.

Under a media blackout, more than 1,600 detainees held at a military base in the central state of Niger will be tried first, followed by 651 others held at the Giwa barracks in Maiduguri.

The government says the blackout is in the interest of national security. However, human rights groups say the public is being denied knowledge of how the trials are carried out.

The Nigerian Ministry of Justice has promised fair trials, saying that defendants have legal representation.

But Osai Osigho, the Nigeria country director for Amnesty International, is not convinced.

"When you look at elements, whether fair hearing has been respected in a particular issue, one of the things you look at is, is the trial public, right? And we know that this trial is closed to people and is closed to media and other observers. So that is the red flag," Osigho said.

Rights activists have several questions about the trial, such as how the four judges assigned to the cases can handle such an enormous task.

There are also questions about evidence. The Ministry of Justice recently acknowledged that poor investigation techniques, including an overreliance on confessions, have made it difficult to conduct credible trials in the past.

There are also accusations that Boko Haram suspects have been tortured in the crowded detention centers where most are being held.

Amnesty International says this will undermine the legitimacy of any statements or testimony obtained from defendants.

However, these trials also signify a turning point in the Boko Haram insurgency, which has left a dire humanitarian refugee crisis in the Lake Chad region.

To date, only nine people have been convicted for links to Boko Haram.

However, the concern exists that the sentences of those found guilty will not be enough punishment for the crimes committed.

Legal expert and barrister Modibbo Bakari says that, according to Nigeria's 2011 antiterrorism act and a 2013 amendment, the highest punishment for convicted Boko Haram terrorists is life imprisonment. Such punishment is not fair, he says.

"These people committed heinous offenses that are of various magnitude, that they killed so many innocent citizens, destroyed properties, rendered so many people homeless, refugees, in all these things and now they all end up giving detention and even giving them sentences of life imprisonment and the government will now take responsibility of their feeding, accommodation for the rest of their life and even giving them protection and medical and all the facilities," Bakari said.

As for people who are found innocent, the Ministry of Justice says they will undergo a de-radicalization program before they are returned to society.

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