ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — Nigeria is opening a secret detention center to hold and interrogate suspected high-level members of a radical Islamist sect responsible for hundreds of killings this year alone, a security official has told The Associated Press.
While the facility could create a more cohesive effort among disparate and sometimes feuding security agencies in Nigeria to combat the sect known as Boko Haram, it raises concerns about its possible use for torture and illegal detentions. Nigeria's security forces have notorious human rights records, with a documented history of abusing and even killing prisoners.
The prison is in Lagos, far from the violence plaguing the country's predominantly Muslim north, where Boko Haram carries out frequent bombings and ambushes, said the security official, who is directly involved in the project. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the facility with journalists.
"All suspects arrested will be taken to the center and would be interrogated by a security group," the official said. He declined to say exactly where it is or how many inmates it can hold. He said authorities are arranging to transport suspects to Lagos, Nigeria's largest city located in its southwest.
The detention center was created at the orders of Nigeria's National Security Adviser Gen. Andrew Owoye Azazi, the official said. Azazi's telephone number is unlisted and the AP was unable to contact him for comment.
Ekpeyong Ita, the director-general of the Nigeria's secret police agency known as the State Security Service, declined to comment Thursday when the AP asked him about the prison.
Minutes later, secret police spokeswoman Marilyn Ogar called an AP journalist and said anyone with information about the purported prison should go to the courts instead of talking to journalists. She refused to confirm or deny the prison's existence.
"Whatever we do, we're running a democratic system that respects the rule of law," the spokeswoman said.
It was not immediately clear why the government would open the detention center in secret. However, Boko Haram has carried out high-profile attacks on federal prisons in the country in the past that has seen hundreds of inmates escape.
Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sacrilege" in the Hausa language of north Nigeria, is carrying out increasingly sophisticated bombings and attacks in its sectarian fight against the country's government. The sect carried out a suicide bombing in August at United Nations' headquarters in the country that killed 25 people and wounded more than 100 others, as well as a coordinated assault this January in the northern city of Kano that killed at least 185 people.
Diplomats and military officials say the sect has links with two other al-Qaida-aligned terrorist groups in Africa. Members of the sect also reportedly have been spotted in northern Mali which Tuareg rebels and hardline Islamists seized control of over the past month.
Police officers shot and killed Boko Haram's former leader Mohammed Yusuf in 2009 while he was in their custody, underscoring the lack of respect for human rights among the security forces. Security agencies have been unable to find and arrest the sect's current leader Sheik Abubakar Shekau, who posts taunting videos on the Internet promising more violence.
"The problem we have is lack of synergy among the security agencies," the security official told AP. Those agencies include the police, the military and intelligence agencies like the State Security Service. Relations between the agencies are testy at times as each fights for its own budgetary allotments. There also are suspicions that some have been influenced by ethnic or religious factors in this nation of more than 160 million people with two dominant religions and more than 250 ethnic groups.
Intelligence agencies allegedly released a suspected Islamic radical in 2007 who later masterminded Boko Haram's suicide car bombing of the U.N. headquarters. Leaked U.S. diplomatic cable also show U.S. officials complained in 2008 about Nigeria's government quietly releasing other suspects into the custody of Islamic leaders as part of a program it called "Perception Management."
Suspected sect members have been arrested and kept locked up for months without being charged. Authorities also routinely arrest women and children related to suspected Boko Haram members in attempts to draw them out. Amnesty International has said some Boko Haram suspects have been "subject to enforced disappearances."
This record leads to fears among human rights groups that the secret detention center could see more suspects disappear, deprived of the right to challenge their detentions in the courts.
"Attacks by armed groups do not absolve the Nigerian government of the responsibility to conduct security operations in a manner that complies with national and international law," Amnesty International said in a statement Thursday. "Widespread unlawful, incommunicado detention must cease immediately."
Ogar, the secret police spokeswoman, appeared later Thursday on the state-run Nigerian Television Authority before the AP published its story. In an interview, she said that a "group of disgruntled people have gone to the foreign media to say that Nigeria has now produced another Guantanamo Bay," referring to the U.S. military detention camp in Cuba.
It is unclear whether any foreign governments have offered Nigeria advice or assistance in opening the detention center. U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria Terence P. McCulley, speaking to journalists April 4, said the U.S. is "working with the Nigerian government to help them develop a counterterrorism strategy that includes perhaps a center even to better coordinate information and intelligence that they receive."
But Deb MacLean, a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman, told the AP that she was unaware of the new detention center and said that the U.S. had no role in it.
Jon Gambrell reported from Lagos, Nigeria, and can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap.