(London, May 17, 2004) - Nigerian police deployed to quell violence between Muslims and Christians in the northern city of Kano have used excessive force and may have committed dozens of unlawful killings in the name of restoring law and order, Human Rights Watch said today.
Police fired into a crowd on May 13, killing around 40 people and wounding numerous others, according to credible local sources. These sources also reported that police used lethal force in several other incidents.
"The police deployed to Kano were instructed to shoot on sight," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Africa Division. "In this volatile situation, the police should be attempting to provide security, not kill more people."
Police reinforcements were sent to Kano after two days of rioting on May 11 and 12, when scores of people were killed as Muslims attacked Christians in reprisal for an attack by Christians against Muslims in Yelwa, Plateau State, on May 2. Several hundred people were killed in the Yelwa attack.
The attackers in Kano used a range of weapons — including machetes, knives, daggers, arrows and stones — as they targeted Christian residents of the city. Witnesses reported that they did not use firearms. Yet many of the dead and injured had gunshot wounds, which local sources believe must have been inflicted by the police. In several cases, eyewitnesses confirmed that the victims had been shot by the police.
Police officials have confirmed in public statements that the police shot a number of people, but claimed that this was in self-defense.
Over the last three years, Human Rights Watch has documented a similar pattern of unlawful, arbitrary and extrajudicial killings by the police following outbreaks of intercommunal violence in Plateau, Kaduna and other states. Some of the victims were not even participating in the rioting or the violence.
In past incidents, none of the police officers responsible for unlawful or extrajudicial killings have been brought to justice.
"Tension between the two communities and further acts of revenge by both sides are likely to continue until those responsible for planning these atrocities are brought to justice," said Takirambudde.
Human Rights Watch urged the Nigerian government and police authorities to give strict instructions to the security forces deployed in anti-riot situations in Kano and elsewhere to only use lethal force as a last resort and to use all other possible means to arrest suspected criminals.
All police officers should be trained in the application of international standards for law enforcement. The U.N. Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials states that officials should "maintain and uphold the human rights of all persons" and "may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty." The U.N. Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials state that when the use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials should exercise restraint, minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life.
In addition, the U.N. Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions lay out the measures to be taken by governments with regard to unlawful killings, including the responsibility to investigate such violations thoroughly, promptly and impartially, and ensure that those responsible are brought to justice.
Human Rights Watch repeated its call to the Nigerian government and judicial authorities to identify and prosecute without delay those responsible for organizing and carrying out the killings in Kano and in Plateau State.