Shiite Muslims in Nigeria on Monday accused the government of flouting due process by detaining an influential cleric and many of his followers without charge for months after deadly clashes with soldiers.
At least 300 members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) were killed in December clashes, according to rights groups, while hundreds of others are still missing, believed dead or in state custody.
The army claimed supporters of IMN cleric Ibrahim Zakzaky tried to kill Nigeria’s chief of army staff in a street skirmish in the northern city of Zaria that became a bloody crackdown on the group.
“We asked the government, why should they detain someone for over 70 days without any charge and without giving access to his lawyers?” IMN spokesman Ibrahim Musa told AFP.
“President (Muhammadu) Buhari is not following the rule of law. In our own case, all the rules concerning arrest, detention, have been broken.”
Buhari, a former military ruler, has been applauded for his anti-corruption drive but faces growing criticism for keeping several high-profile prisoners, including Zakzaky, behind bars.
Human Rights Watch described the attacks as “unjustified” and said that “at best it was a brutal overreaction and at worst it was a planned attack on the minority Shiite group”.
Western diplomats in Nigeria have privately expressed concerns about the effect of the army’s actions in Zaria on international cooperation.
A number of countries have already pulled back from greater involvement in the fight against Boko Haram insurgents because of the human rights abuses committed by the army against civilians in the conflict, which has killed at least 17,000 people since 2009.
The IMN has refused to attend a commission of inquiry set up in January by the Kaduna state government until lawyers are able to meet Zakzaky, who was reportedly wounded and has not been seen since.
The commission, which the IMN has lambasted for being biased, is scheduled to meet again next Monday.
Earlier in February, police charged 191 IMN members with illegal possession of firearms and public disturbance in connection with the clashes. All suspects pleaded not guilty.
The court proceedings were held inside the central prison in Kaduna where the suspects were being held for security reasons, prosecution lawyer Dari Bayero said.
There are fears that the military action against the Shiite group will develop into another insurgency similar to Boko Haram in the north.