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WACOL and other civil society groups protest against the police on February 3, 2020 in Enugu City.  © WACOL

(Abuja) – A lawyer who helped a young woman file a rape report has accused police in Nigeria’s  southeastern Enugu state of assaulting her, leaving her hospitalized in critical condition.

The lawyer, Goodness Ibangah, said she had accompanied a 21-year-old woman to file a rape report at the Enugu State Police Area Command on January 27, 2020 and resisted pressure from the police to withdraw the complaint and settle the case outside of the criminal justice system. In response, the police raided the office of the Women’s Aid Collective (WACOL), a Nigerian women’s rights group where Ibangah works, and attacked her.

“The conduct of the police in this case is shockingly unprofessional, criminal, and in violation of the rights they are charged with protecting,” said Anietie Ewang, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Their actions appear to endorse violence against women, an injustice they should be at the forefront of combating.”

Ibangah told Human Rights Watch that the police officers were hostile from the beginning. She said the officers asked the young woman if she was raped “with or without consent” and chided her for speaking about rape at her age. At Ibangah’s insistence, the woman was allowed to file the report, and the police later arrested the accused person. Ibangah soon began receiving a barrage of phone calls from the police officers who had received the complaint, pressing her to convince the young woman to settle the case with the accused’s family rather than go to court.

Then, on January 30, Ibangah said four police officers stormed the group’s offices and demanded that she produce the young woman who filed the complaint. They accused Ibangah of preventing negotiations and an out-of-court settlement, threatened, verbally abused, manhandled, and beat her with their hands as they attempted to take her away with them. The officers also attacked another staff member who tried to intervene. They confiscated Ibangah’s phone and those belonging to her colleagues who were trying to document the incident.

Ibangah was eventually taken to the police station where the same officers further intimidated her and forced her to call the victim and ask her to come to the station. Ibangah said that she passed out after complaining about difficulties breathing. A statement issued by WACOL states that she was taken to a hospital about 20 minutes later by a lawyer who was at the police station, in his private vehicle accompanied by 2 police officers.  

“The victim insisted she wanted to follow through with the case, and I reinforced and communicated this to the officers during each of their numerous phone calls,” Ibanga later told Human Rights Watch. “I felt terrible; was angry and disgusted with the way the police officers carried on, but even as I was dragged and beaten, my heart was reaching out to the victim. She trusted the system. She had a little faith in the system, and they threw that faith away in the trash.”

Sexual violence is widespread in Nigeria. An estimated two million Nigerian women and girls are sexually assaulted annually, according to Nigeria’s Minister of Women Affairs and Social Development, but few of these cases are reported due to the stigma associated with being a rape victim and fear and distrust of the police.

Nigerian security officials have frequently been accused of abuse of power and implicated in gross human rights abuses, including illegal detention, arbitrary killings, extortion, bribery, and sexual abuse, with little or no effort to bring those responsible to justice. They have also been accused of mistreating and harassing rape victims. According to media reports, in 2019, police officials intimidated a rape complainant in a high-profile rape case by invading her home and harassing her family.

Several Nigerian human rights groups have condemned police handling of the case. In a statement issued on February 1, the Nigerian Bar Association called on the police inspector general and the Police Service Commission to “investigate the rogue behavior by the police and bring all those involved to book.”

The Enugu State Police Command, in a statement issued on the same day, promised to investigate the incident and announced that a commission of inquiry would be established and led by a serving member of the police force.

On February 3, WACOL and other organizations held a protest against the police in Enugu City, the Enugu state capital. Groups are also protesting on February 6 in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, calling on the authorities to ensure the safety of the rape victim and activists supporting her, create an independent investigation, and ensure accountability for police conduct. They are also calling for a full investigation into how the initial rape report was handled.

“Police have a duty to protect women and girls who report rape to them with investigations that are timely, unbiased, transparent, and conclusive,” Ewang said. “To do anything less is to send a message that justice is not important for victims of sexual violence.”

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