Meet SARS, the Police Unit with license to kill

One after the other, the police officers made for their jugulars, muzzled them with handkerchiefs and asked them where they preferred to die.

The Nigerian Police is dreaded and feared on the streets for its high handedness (SaharaReporters)

"Na Island or Ikorodu water you wan drink?",the police personnel would inquire from the suspects, through menacing and bloodshot eyes. A few jabs with the butt of a gun to the belly of the suspect would follow, until he's dragged on the floor and out of sight.

Nine times out of ten, the suspect whose name is called out and who is asked what kind of water he prefers to drink, never returns to the overcrowded prison cell.

'Water' here is code for the canals of Ikorodu or Lagos Island--where bodies are disposed of after yet another extra-judicial killing by police officers.

Welcome to the world of the Police Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).

On Thursday, September 23, 2016, Pulse listened to a gentleman who made it out of the SARS detention facility in Ikeja, Lagos, alive, share his story through a cascade of tears. The venue was an eatery on Allen Avenue in Nigeria's commercial capital.

"Most of us can't afford legal representatives, so we are at the mercy of the SARS guys. We are mercilessly beaten. I can count how many persons never returned to the cell after their names were called out and after they were asked which water they'd prefer to drink.

"I knew someday I was going to be next, until luck smiled on me. I was let out of SARS after my lawyer came through for me. I had been wrongly charged..."

Our source would rather his name be left out of this story. But his tale of extra-judicial killings from a unit of the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) resonates with a report from Amnesty International (AI), a Human Rights group, made public this week.

“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.”

SARS torture techniques have long been spoken of in hush tones. Three years ago however, political news site Ekekeee, ran a story on the brutality of SARS.

AI said it had received reports from lawyers, human rights defenders and journalists, detailing how police officers in SARS regularly solicited bribes and extorted money from suspects and their families. Those who wouldn't co-operate, ended up gulping Ikorodu or Island water.

SARS detainees are held in a variety of locations, including a grim detention centre in Abuja known as the ‘Abattoir’, where AI said it had found 130 detainees living in overcrowded cells, according to the report.

According to AI, a 25-year-old petrol attendant was arrested by SARS after his employer had accused him of being responsible for a burglary at their business premises.

“They left me hanging on a suspended iron rod. My body ceased to function. I lost consciousness. The policemen asked me to sign a plain sheet. When I signed it, they told me I had signed my death warrant. When I was about to die, they took me down and poured water on me to revive me,” the victim told AI.

According to a story in TheCable, the officers reportedly denied the victim access to a lawyer, a doctor or his family during his two-week detention.

AI 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 AI he was arrested in Enugu before being robbed of his belongings and then tortured in SARS custody.

“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 had parted with N25,500 to cruel SARS officials.

AI also told the story of how SARS raided and stole from a 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" would be missing.Victims were reportedly "too scared to report the incident,” said AI.

“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,” the report from AI stated.

The Nigeria Police has slammed Amnesty International for its report, describing it as a fantasy.

“The Amnesty International’s Nigeria researcher, Damian Ugwu’s choice of words in describing the operations of SARS portrays the researcher’s apparent ignorance of the rules of engagement of SARS and the laws regulating criminal investigation in Nigeria,” said Don Awunah, Force Public Relations officer, in a statement sent to Pulse.

“The researcher deliberately misconstrued the cautionary words, a prerequisite for suspects to sign before voluntary statement is taken from them as ‘death warrant’.

“The assertion of the Amnesty International Nigeria researcher that detainees are subjected to ‘horrific torture methods, including hanging, starvation, beatings, shootings and mock executions, at the hands of corrupt officers from the feared Special Anti-Robbery Squad [SARS]’ is a fantasy of Damian Ugwu.

“The Force has been working with critical stakeholders in the criminal justice system in the country and other local and international NGOs and partners including foreign embassies and international human rights organisations to train and retrain Police personnel to conform to International best practices on care and custody of detainees in its detention facilities across the country.

“The Nigeria Police, therefore wishes to urge Nigerians and the International community to discountenance and disregard the so called Amnesty report on Police torture in Nigeria as a clear demonstration of mischief and calculated attempt to promote a campaign of calumny and hidden agenda of suppressing growth and development in countries like Nigeria.

“The wishes to reassure Nigerians and the International community that the Nigeria Police will continue to discharge its statutory functions according to all known laws and regulations despite obvious distractions.

“The Nigeria Police is determined to adhere to principles of International Police reforms, conform to standard discipline and rewards system, building trust and confidence in the citizenry and will not condone torture and other ill treatment of suspects in SARS detention or any of its detention facility throughout the country.

“The Nigeria Police performance in International organisations has been a source of pride to Africa and the United Nations.”

Police brutality and killings are rife in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, where young men are randomly stopped and harassed on the streets by police officers on suspicion of being internet fraudsters.

An intense 3-year social media campaign calling for the reform of notorious police unit—Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS)--has only led to mixed messages from the presidency. 

On August 14, 2018, then Acting President Yemi Osinbajo ordered the Inspector General of Police to shut down SARS as reports of police brutality continued to emerge with regularity from across the country. 

"Following persistent complaints and reports on the activities of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) that border on allegations of human rights violations, His Excellency, Professor Yemi Osinbajo SAN, Acting-President, Federal Republic of Nigeria, has directed the Inspector General of Police to, with immediate effect, overhaul the management and activities of SARS and ensure that any unit that will emerge from the process, will be intelligence-driven and restricted to the prevention and detection of armed robbery and kidnapping, and apprehension of offenders linked to the stated offences, and nothing more”, the statement from Osinbajo had read. 

The Acting President also “directed the National Human Rights Commission to set up a Committee that will conduct nation-wide investigation of the alleged unlawful activities of SARS in order to afford members of the general public the opportunity to present their grievances with a view to ensuring redress."

Nothing has been heard of the committee since the directive was issued. 


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