Amnesty International, a human rights group, has accused some officers of the State Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of engaging in illegalities to make money.
In a report released on Wednesday, the group said rather than work in line with its mandate of combating violent crime, the unit — carved out of the Nigeria police force — has instead been systematically torturing detainees in its custody as a means of extracting confessions and lucrative bribes.
The organisation said it spoke with different individuals who had been subjected to horrific torture methods, including hanging, starvation, beatings, shootings and mock executions, at the hands of “corrupt officers from the feared SARS”.
“A police unit created to protect the people has instead become a danger to society, torturing its victims with complete impunity while fomenting a toxic climate of fear and corruption,” said Damian Ugwu, Amnesty International’s Nigeria researcher.
“Our research has uncovered a pattern of ruthless human rights violations where victims are arrested and tortured until they either make a ‘confession’ or pay officers a bribe to be released.
“SARS officers are getting rich through their brutality. In Nigeria, it seems that torture is a lucrative business.”
Amnesty International said it received reports from lawyers, human rights defenders and journalists, and collected testimonies stating that some police officers in SARS regularly demanded bribes, stole and extorted money from criminal suspects and their families.
Amnesty explained that SARS detainees are held in a variety of locations, including a grim detention centre in Abuja known as the ‘Abattoir’, where it found 130 detainees living in overcrowded cells.
The group narrated a case in Onitsha, Anambra state, where a 25-year-old fuel attendant was arrested by SARS after his employer had accused him of being responsible for a burglary at their business premises.
“The policemen asked me to sign a plain sheet. When I signed it, they told me I had signed my death warrant. They left me hanging on a suspended iron rod. My body ceased to function. I lost consciousness. When I was about to die they took me down and poured water on me to revive me,” the victim was quoted as saying.
The officers reportedly denied him access to a lawyer, a doctor or his family during his two-week detention.
Amnesty International said when it inquired about why no police officers had been suspended or prosecuted for torture, the police simply denied that any torture had taken place. Instead, one senior officer disclosed that some 40 officers alleged to have carried out various acts of torture and ill-treatment of detainees were transferred to other stations in April 2016.
“This lack of accountability breeds and perpetuates impunity, creating an environment where SARS officers believe they have carte blanche to carry out acts of torture,” Ugwu said.
“This is hardly surprising when many of these officers have bribed their way to SARS in the first place. The police chiefs in charge are themselves entwined in the corruption.”
Chidi Oluchi, 32, told Amnesty international he was arrested in Enugu before being robbed of his belongings and then tortured in custody by SARS officers.
“They told me to slap myself and, when I refused, they started beating me with the side of their machetes and heavy sticks. My mouth was bleeding and my vision became blurred,” said Chidi, who was released after he allegedly paid SARS officers N25,500 to be freed.
Apart from demanding bribes, SARS officers have been accused of stealing or confiscating property from relatives of detained suspects. Some family members told Amnesty International that SARS officers stole their cars or withdrew all the money from their bank accounts.
The brother of a man arrested on suspicion of participating in an armed robbery reportedly told Amnesty International how a team of SARS officers raided his home in Nsukka.
“The police team from SARS forcefully broke into boxes, locked furniture and drawers. By the time they left, several items including watches, jewellery and shoes were missing. We were too scared to report the incident,” he said.
The majority of the victims of torture in SARS custody are poor and unable to hire legal representatives. In some cases when detainees cannot afford to pay bribes, they are simply tortured more.
“Our research has exposed the callous workings of a police squad operating outside of the law and inflicting daily brutality on Nigerians who are often legally powerless to defend themselves against criminal accusations, let alone from the torture meted out by SARS,” Ugwu said.
“Depressingly, there are scant judicial or any other mechanisms in place to prevent SARS officers from subjecting vulnerable targets to human rights violations for their own financial gain.”