LAGOS - Amnesty International says hundreds of people were killed by the Nigerian military in a clash with a Shi'ite Muslim sect in the northern city of Zaria in December. The report's release Friday comes as the government filed charges that carried the death penalty against hundreds of the group's surviving members.
In December, residents of the Kaduna suburb Mando noticed a massive hole dug in a remote part of their local cemetery. It was then filled almost as quickly as it had been dug. What they only found out later was that it was full of bodies.
A Kaduna state official told VOA that inside the mass grave were corpses of 347 people killed in a clash between the military and the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, a Shi'ite sect based in Zaria.
Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Response Advisor Donatella Rovera says what took place there was a massacre. A report from the rights group says soldiers shot children in the head and set a building full of wounded people on fire, then tried to cover it all up.
In addition to those buried in the mass grave, the Shi'ite group says a further 350 of their members remain missing.
“The Nigerian military went to extraordinary efforts to cover up their crime, to destroy the evidence and this is very striking,” said Rovera.
The military says soldiers fought back after members of the sect tried to assassinate the chief of army staff as he passed through Zaria. The military spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
Rovera says both the military and Kaduna state are complicit in covering up the deaths of hundreds of people.
One state official says he was merely doing his job. Namadi Musa, an adviser to the government on religious matters, told VOA that Kaduna’s governor asked him the day after the clash to travel to Zaria and ensure that 347 corpses released by the military were given a proper burial.
“I followed specific instructions: count the number, make sure they’re buried in a dignified way, and know where they’re buried,” said Musa.
A state commission of inquiry is investigating the incident.
State officials this week filed charges against a group of 50 people arrested after the clash. A lawyer for the group, Festus Okoye, says he expects a total of 265 people to be arraigned in the coming weeks. Of those, 255 will face charges of culpable homicide, which carries the death penalty.