At least 3,600 children from the Boko Haram-wreaked North East are said to be detained by the Nigerian military, a report released by Human Rights Watch, HRW, on Tuesday indicated.
The report said most of the children, including 1,617 girls, were being detained at Giwa military barracks in Maiduguri, Borno State capital.
But Defence Headquarters, in a pre-emptive manner on Monday, dismissed the report, saying no child was held in detention facilities in the North East.
However, Human Rights Watch said the military had since 2013, arbitrarily detained the children in “degrading and inhuman conditions” for suspected involvement with the Boko Haram insurgents.
“Many children are held without charge for months or years in squalid and severely overcrowded military barracks, with no contact with the outside world,” it said.
HRW added that it spoke with 32 children and youth who had been in such detention facilities, including one who was quoted as saying they were “packed tightly in their cells with hundreds of other detainees like razor blades in a pack.”
“None of the children said they were taken before a judge or appeared in court, as required by law, and only one saw someone who he thought may have been a lawyer. None were aware of any charges against them. One was detained when he was only 5 years old,” the organisation said.
‘ARRESTED FOR SELLING YAMS TO BOKO HARAM MEMBERS’
The organisation alleged that the military arrested the children during operations, security sweeps, screening procedures for internally displaced persons, and based on information from informants.
“Many of the children said they were arrested after fleeing Boko Haram attacks on their village or while seeking refuge at camps for internally displaced people,” it said, quoting one as saying he was “arrested and detained for more than two years for allegedly selling yams to Boko Haram members.”
‘INHUMANE CONDITIONS IN DETENTION FACILITIES’
HRW quoted some of the children interviewed as saying they shared a 10-by-10 meters single cell with 250 or more detainees.
“They said the stench from a single open toilet was often overwhelming and that detainees sometimes fainted from the heat.
“Nearly half of the children said they saw dead bodies of other detainees at Giwa barracks. Many said they suffered frequent thirst or hunger.
“The children said that Giwa has a cell for boys under 18 with children as young as 7, or even younger. The military also detains children in adult cells, where children said food and water were scarcer and conditions even more crowded,” the group said.
It urged the federal government to release the children and adopt the United Nations handover protocol to ensure their swift transfer to child protection authorities to get rehabilitated and re-united with their families.
“If military or intelligence authorities have credible evidence of criminal offenses by children, they should transfer them to civilian judicial authorities to be treated in accordance with national and international juvenile justice standards,” it added.
Reacting to the report, Col. Onyema Chukwuma, acting Director, Army Public Relations, said in a statement: ”The report is not only false but also capable of undermining the joint efforts of the Armed Forces and other security agencies in the North East.
”It is an established fact that Boko Haram terrorists indoctrinate women and children who they use as suicide bombers in the theatre of operations. In the conduct of their operations, troops arrest these children while attempting to detonate explosives and provide tacit support to insurgents such as intelligence on troops’ movement and deployments.
”Contrary to HRW’s claims, however, the Armed Forces of Nigeria manages children in the North East theatre as victims of war and not as suspects. Apprehended children are kept in secured places where they are adequately fed, profiled and de-radicalised before their release.”