LAGOS, Nigeria — In a striking glimpse into Nigeria’s escalating war with Islamist militants, mortuary records from a single Nigerian hospital show that the number of detainees who died in military custody more than tripled in June, after a state of emergency was declared in the northeast.
Overall, the records obtained by the Associated Press for the nine months from Oct. 5, 2012, to July 5 indicate that the military is killing thousands in its crackdown on the uprising in northeast Nigeria.
The records are from the Sani Abacha Specialist Teaching Hospital in Maiduguri, the birthplace of Boko Haram, the Islamist movement fighting to uproot Western cultural influences from a country shared almost equally by Muslims and Christians. In the 30 days before May 14, when the state of emergency was declared, 380 bodies were delivered to the hospital by the military. In the 30 days after, the number was 1,321.
The number for June was 1,795, the highest monthly total in the records seen by the AP, whose journalists also witnessed many of the bodies being delivered to the hospital in military ambulances, escorted by armored cars.
That figure is much larger than the estimated number of Boko Haram fighters.
Nigerian government and military officials have refused to comment, and it is impossible to know how many of the dead had Boko Haram connections.
A pastor said in an interview that he was held at Maiduguri’s Giwa Military Barracks after he and four others were arrested because weapons were found hidden in the factory where he works.
He described hundreds of naked people crammed into a cell meant for several dozen. Once a day, he said, a soldier would throw a loaf of moistened bread into the cell to be brawled over. Some prisoners died of torture, he said.
He told the AP he was freed with the intervention of a Christian group. He requested anonymity, fearing military retaliation.
Amnesty International reported last week that hundreds of people have died recently in military detention — some reportedly shot, some reportedly perishing from suffocation or starvation.
The London-based human rights group said “credible information” from a senior Nigerian army officer indicated that more than 950 people were killed in military custody in the first six months of this year. The mortuary records seen by the AP list 3,335 bodies in just one hospital during that period.
About 400 civilians were killed in Boko Haram attacks in the same period, according to an AP count of reported incidents.
Boko Haram has done much to alienate the public. Suspected militants have gunned down dozens of schoolchildren, some as they sat at their desks, and burned alive students locked into dormitories that were set ablaze.
The name Boko Haram roughly means “Western education is forbidden.”
The group has killed more Muslims than Christians. In August, it gunned down 47 worshipers in a mosque. Last month it captured a muezzin, the Muslim crier who calls the faithful to prayer, and made him issue the pre-dawn summons. The group’s fighters then killed at least seven elderly men who answered the call.
Local and international human rights groups say the troops deployed to combat Boko Haram are notorious for their excesses and have draconian powers to raid homes and detain people. The groups say there is a danger of a backlash from a poor population that feels marginalized from Nigeria’s political center and its president, Goodluck Jonathan, who is Christian.
Days after the state of emergency was declared, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry noted “deep concern over credible allegations of gross human rights violations by Nigerian security forces.”
AP writer Deb Riechmann contributed from Washington.