Actions of the officials of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a controversial police unit in Nigeria, show that they are more interested in enriching themselves than bringing criminals to book, Amnesty International (AI) has said in a new report.
Released on Friday, the report, Time To End Impunity: Torture And Other Violations By SARS, is based on research conducted between January, 2017 and February, 2019 and interviews with over 82 people. It contains accounts from various victims of extortion who are mostly young and vulnerable Nigerians.
Its findings, AI noted, suggested that “financial gain ― rather than curbing armed robbery and other forms of criminal activity ― appears to be one of the motivating factors of SARS, as they constantly raid public places frequented by young people, in order to extort money from them.” “Evidence collected indicates that SARS officers regularly demand bribes, steal and extort money from criminal suspects and their families,” it continued.
“Additionally, SARS officers act outside of their legal ambit by investigating civil matters and in some cases torturing detainees involved in contractual, business and even non-criminal disputes.
“Most victims of ill-treatment by the SARS are usually poor. Many are arrested by the SARS officers during large dragnet operations involving mass arrests, including raids on bars and television viewing centres, and ordered to pay a bribe to be released.
“Those who are unable to pay are often tortured, either as punishment or to coerce them to find the money. The alternative is to risk being labelled as an armed robber.” In the majority of cases, the unlawful practices take place with the full knowledge and agreement of superior police officers, Amnesty reported. It said it had documented 15 cases of arbitrary property confiscation by the police unit.
Gift Ezenwa, 32, said her husband, Collins, was killed by SARS operatives in January, 2017 in Owerri, Imo State, after he was tagged an armed robber and kidnapper, the organisation stated.
It quoted Gift as saying that her husband’s body was paraded by the police and photo evidence indicated that he had been arrested at a police checkpoint and taken to a SARS detention facility where he was executed.
“Two months after the death of Collins Ezenwa, the police arrested four of his relatives and extorted various sums of money from them.
“One of the relatives, a 48-year-old trader, told Amnesty International that he was arrested in his village in Imo State and taken to Lagos, where he was detained for two weeks. He paid one million naira($2,777) to the police before he was released,” the international NGO reported. According to Gift, another police department, the Intelligence Response Unit (IRT), planned to illegally take custody of the family’s assets and money.
“All our vehicles have been unlawfully confiscated by the police and converted to their personal use… I saw one policeman using my car and… was driving the Sienna my husband gave his cousin… Our hotel has been taken over by the police. I was informed that our Prado jeep is being used by SARS for patrols,” she narrated.
“Our hotel is currently managed by someone appointed by the police and he renders account to the police. The hotel makes a cash turnover of about N12 million every month. The police have also stopped our tenants from paying rent to me. I have absolutely nothing.
“The police IPO warned me to cooperate with them and comply with their instructions and not to involve lawyers in my discussions with them. “He said that he knew that I was innocent, but my husband made billions within two months, that I married him for his money. That my husband must have been a kidnapper or stumbled on money, but that men who stumble on money do not display wealth like he (my husband) had done.”
AI confirmed that no court order granted the confiscation of properties possibly until much later in September 2019. Ezenwa’s bank account was also frozen despite the court rejecting the
application by the police to do so.
Thirty-two years old Ugochukwu, a trader based in Anambra State, told Amnesty that he lost six million naira to SARS operatives in 2018 after he was arrested without a warrant, detained for six days, and tortured. He was accused of paying money to a criminal gang and told to pay the sum of N20 million as condition for his release.
“On the fifth day, they brought me out and told me that my life would end on that day, since I was refusing to cooperate with them,” Ugochukwu recounted. “Four policemen blindfolded me and handcuffed me and pushed me into their car. They drove for about two hours and stopped at a particular spot. They removed my blindfold. I saw that I was beside a borrow pit inside the bush. I had no idea where we were… They told me that my life had come to an end, as I would be executed shortly.
“Their leader told them that they should shoot me as soon as he gave the signal. I was crying and pleading, but they refused to listen. They all pointed their guns at me. I heard the command to shoot and heard the sound of rapid gunshots. I passed out. When I regained consciousness, I saw that I was inside their vehicle, blindfolded.
“They took me back to the cell… They said I would not be so lucky the next time. I had no option but to agree to their terms. I transferred the money using my mobile phone application and they allowed me to go. One of the officers told me that they would kill me if I revealed my ordeal at SARS to anyone, including my family members.” Amnesty International observed that in all the cases it documented, there was no single instance where a SARS operative was sanctioned for torturing civilians.
“In every case investigated by Amnesty International, the perpetrators acted with impunity,” the organisation said, adding that there was an absence of oversight mechanisms regarding the conduct of the police unit. “It is high time the Nigerian government took a solid stand against impunity by SARS, by ensuring that all police officers are made accountable for their actions,” AI said.
“Serious consideration should be given to the creation of a specialised department within the PSC, for oversight of SARS,” it added.
“The Police Service Commission (PSC) should have enough independence to develop its own processes and procedures and should have its own investigators. It should not have to rely on the police to investigate allegations of human rights violations.” Amnesty said it wrote to the police to clarify issues in the allegations but they did not respond.