Posted 2011/1/19

Nigeria: Stigmatisation, arrest and judicial harassment of childrens rights defenders in Akwa Ibom State

Human rights defenders involved in the protection of abused and abandoned children accused of witchcraft in Akwa Ibom State, including Mr Leo Igwe of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), Mr Sam Ikpe-Itauma of the Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN) and Mr Gary Foxcroft of Stepping Stones Nigeria (SSN), are being subjected to an intensifying campaign of stigmatisation and judicial harassment by authorities and private individuals in Akwa Ibom State.

Further Information

Leo Igwe is the West Africa representative of the IHEU and executive secretary of the Nigerian Humanist Movement; he has been the subject of previous Front Line Urgent Appeals dated 2 March 2010 and 16 August 2010.

Harassment and stigmatisation of organisations and individuals involved in the protection of children accused of witchcraft in Akwa Ibom State has intensified particularly since the airing of a series of television programmes concerning the same issue, aired on CNN in August 2010. Since this time, child rights defenders have reported increasing threats, harassment, intimidation and stigmatisation against them, particularly from public officials angered by the perceived negative image of the State generated by the documentary. Local media reported that Akwa Ibom State governor Goodwill Akpabio promised to 'deal with' child rights activists.

Most recently, on 13 January 2011, Leo Igwe was released following two days in detention at the Anti-Kidnapping Unit at the State Police Command in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, during which he was reportedly ill-treated by police. He had been arrested along with his driver and a photographer at approximately 17:00 on 11 January 2011, outside a bank in Uyo. They were initially accosted and accused of kidnap by police officers in the area, and were placed under arrest subsequent to the arrival of several further armed police officers, who tied their arms tightly behind their backs using their shirts, and pushed and kicked them into the police vehicle. Leo Igwe's arms were reportedly tied in such a way as to cause severe pain and a complete loss of sensation in his hands and fingers; his requests to have his restrains loosened were reportedly ignored and his requests for handcuffs were met by a demand for money.

Once in detention, Leo Igwe was subjected to severe physical abuse while under interrogation from the Officer in Charge of the Anti-Kidnapping Unit, who reportedly hit him several times over the head and legs with a baton and accused him of using a fake NGO to make money in the name of campaigning against accusations of witchcraft in the State. The Officer in Charge subsequently ordered that Leo Igwe be moved to another room, wherein he was reportedly subjected to further beatings from another police officer.

The following day, Leo Igwe was interrogated further, primarily in relation to the IHEU, its location and methods of fundraising. Leo Igwe, his driver, and the photographer who had also been arrested were reportedly held in a single room without electricity along with 50 other detainees; they were denied food, water, and access to lawyers and family members for the duration of their detention. They were released on 13 January subsequent to the intervention of a barrister on their behalf.

Following Leo Igwe's release, police claimed his arrest and detention were a case of mistaken identity; however, the Akwa Ibom State Commissioner for Information later claimed that Leo Igwe had been arrested in relation to “fraud-related issues”. Leo Igwe's arrest took place only hours after his participation in the rescue, along with police officers, of an 8 year old child who had been abandoned due to allegations of witchcraft and subsequently kidnapped and raped.

The president of CRARN, Mr Sam Ikpe-Itauma, was arraigned before the Oron High Court in January 2011. He had reportedly been called to appear as a witness in the trial of a man suspected to have killed over a hundred 'child witches', but was in turn charged by the prosecutor. The hearing has been adjourned to 7 February 2011 to allow for his lawyer to prepare the defense.

Previously, on 10 November 2010, the CRARN centre in Eket, Akwa Ibom State, was raided by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), who sought to arrest Sam Ikpe-Itauma subsequent to the lodgement of a petition against CRARN by an unknown individual. As Sam Ikpe-Itauma was not present at the time, the EFCC initially arrested another member of CRARN, before releasing him shortly afterward. These events followed the reported launch of a widespread media campaign by the Akwa Ibom State Government, which has portrayed both the SSN, CRARN and similar NGOs as fraudulent organisations involved in extortion, – accusations reported to have been made by the Executive Governor of Akwa Ibom State in his appearance in the aforementioned CNN series – , and calling for the arrests of Sam Ikpe-Itauma and the Director of the SSN, Gary Foxcroft. It is reported that this campaign of stigmatisation led to an increase in the frequency of acts of intimidation and harassment of such human rights defenders in Akwa Ibom.

CRARN and SSN have also come under pressure from local Christian pastors who, it is alleged, profit significantly from supposedly 'saving' children from witchcraft through religious rituals. A court case launched by one such pastor against CRARN and SSN remains open since 2009. The same pastor also reportedly sent supporters to raid a conference on children's rights and assault its organisers, and ordered a lawyer to bring police officers to the CRARN centre where they reportedly arrested a number of the staff and beat some of the children present.

Front Line believes that the arrest and detention of Leo Igwe as well as the ongoing harassment and stigmatisation of CRARN and SSN are directly related to their legitimate and peaceful work in defence of human rights, particularly with regard to protection for children accused of witchcraft.

Action Update Needed. Before taking further action on this case please contact info@frontlinedefenders.org for further information