44 dead in Chad cell were civilians, not jihadists: commission

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N’DJAMENA, Aug 8, 2020 (BSS/AFP) – Forty-four people who died in a
Chad prison cell were civilians who succumbed to brutal detention
conditions, not jihadists poisoned as authorities suggested, the
National Commission for Human Rights has found.

Mystery had originally surrounded the fates of the 44 people after
their bodies were found in a N’Djamena cell in April, with a
prosecutor saying that autopsies revealed traces of poison in some of
the prisoners.

But an investigative report released Friday by the semi-desert
country’s independent National Commission for Human Rights ruled out
poisoning.

The report found the 44 prisoners died due to “the conditions of
detention”, which included a dangerously overcrowded cell, scorching
heat, thirst and hunger.

“The jailers did not deign to give assistance to anyone in danger in
these conditions despite cries of distress and prayers recited all
night from 8pm to 6am,” the report said.

Chad officials said the dead were among a group of 58 suspected Boko
Haram militants captured during a major army operation around Lake
Chad launched by President Idriss Deby Itno in early April.

But late last month the Chadian Convention for Human Rights (CTDDH)
said the group was in fact “farmers and villagers who were arbitrarily
arrested”.

The Commission’s report confirmed the claim, saying “the detainees
were arrested long after the army operation… not during the
fighting”.

According to relatives of the victims interviewed by the Commission,
the detainees were “mostly the heads of families who had left in
search of daily food”, or were visiting family members in other
villages.

The Commission also interviewed the 14 survivors. Two said they were
16 years old, while the other 12 were the fathers of families living
off the land in the villages surrounding Lake Chad.

Most said they were arrested for violating measures such as travels
bans under the state of emergency imposed on the Lake Chad region
ahead of the military operation.

The survivors said the only food anyone in the cell was given were a
few dates — but many missed out.

Some of the detainees then started to have trouble and fall, some
prayed while “others shouted and knocked to attract the attention of
the jailers,” the survivors said.

Justice Minister Djimet Arabi told AFP he had taken note of the
Commission’s report, adding that a judicial inquiry had been launched
to find those responsible for the deaths.

In April, Arabi had suggested the deaths could have been “collective
suicide” after the prosecutor’s office said that autopsies had
detected a lethal substance in some of the bodies.