Report: Nigeria police arrest innocent and kill for bribes as little as 13 cents

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Nigeria's federal police officers use illegal arrests and torture to demand bribes from the innocent, sometimes killing people over as little as 13 cents, according to a report released Tuesday by an international human rights group.

The report by Human Rights Watch highlights how the oil-rich nation's police force shakes down crime victims for money to buy stationery and bus fares, while dual flat-screen plasma teleconference equipment worth $50,000 sits alongside leather couches in one office.

Activists and international groups long have criticized Nigeria's police for committing so-called extrajudicial killings and fostering an officer corps that preys on the impoverished. However, the new report offers victims' testimony detailing the profit that officers and commanders gain through their cruelty.

"They said the police don't work without money," an engineer who had asked officers to investigate his brother's death told the rights group. "They said if I don't have money, I shouldn't go for justice."

Police spokesman Emmanuel Ojukwu said Tuesday's report contains "largely embellished innuendoes" and had reached a preconceived conclusion. In an article posted to the force's website Saturday, Ojukwu had criticized corrupt officers.

"It does not need much sermonizing for an officer to know that extortion is bad," the spokesman wrote. "You need not visit a university to be lectured that torture is wicked and evil and that man's inhumanity to man is an offense before God. ... But we kill the police by engaging in such acts."

Those interviewed by the rights group spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. They described how officers seize merchandise from roadside hawkers, holding it until receiving a bribe. Others complained about being "arrested" without cause while at restaurants and bars. Officers take those detained to police stations, where the innocent must pay around $40 to be released, the rights group said.

One trader from Onitsha quoted in the report said undercover police officers that commandeered a commercial bus once "arrested" him in a group of people just trying to go home. Those who paid left; those who didn't, like the trader, received beatings.

"The others didn't have money on them and didn't have anyone to call," the trader said. "They were crying."

Prostitutes who didn't pay the bribes told the rights group that officers raped them. In the report, family members described how officers beat their loved ones or outright killed them over sums as little as 13 cents at police checkpoints.

Bribery also remains endemic within the ranks of the police, first created in 1861 by British colonialists and known even then as "The 40 Thieves." In the modern force, recruits bribe their way into uniform and must meet bribe quotas set by superiors to reach and hold on to lucrative posts, the report claims. Otherwise, officers get banished to desk duty and are forced to survive on a meager salary.

Yet despite hundreds of millions of dollars in oil money flowing into the force, officers in dirty uniforms routinely patrol roadblocks brandishing poorly maintained Kalashnikovs or even flare guns.

The report suggests that money from the corrupt police practices ultimately line the pockets of the force's top administrators, while Nigerian citizens pay with their lives.

That could be seen last Sunday, a truck plowed into cars stopped along a Lagos expressway, starting fires that left at least 20 dead. Local newspapers quoted witnesses saying a police roadblock caused the traffic jam, as officers attempted to extort money from passing motorists.

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Online:

Human Rights Watch: http://www.hrw.org

Nigeria Police Force: http://www.npf.gov.ng