On April 16th, 44 suspected Boko Haram militants died in a prison in Chad.
They were all poisoned and the mystery is whether they were simply murdered or they committed “collective suicide.”
The country’s chief prosecutor Youssouf Tom said that the prisoners were found dead in their cells in N’Djamena jail.
An autopsy carried out on four of the dead prisoners revealed traces of a lethal substance that had caused heart attacks or severe asphyxiation, according to Tom.
The 44 were part of a group of 58 who were captured during a major operation around Lake Chad launched by President Idriss Deby in earlier April.
They were to be tried by a criminal court, Justice Minister Djimet Arabi said.
“What happened in the meantime? We are still in shock,” Arabi said, adding that an investigation has been launched.
An unnamed source told AFP that the prisoners were all kept in a single cell and had been given nothing to eat or drink for two days.
“It’s a serious violation of international humanitarian law,” said Jean Bosco Manga, founder of the Citizens’ Movement for the Preservation of Liberties. “When the enemy is under your control, disarmed, he must enjoy all humanitarian protections.”
Mahamat Alabo, a leading opposition figure, said:
“The Chadian government is responsible for what happened to them in prison. The causes must really be determined,” he said, calling for an independent investigation.
The 14 prisoners who survived are to be questioned around the circumstances of the deaths.
Bulama Bukarti, an expert on Boko Haram at London University, told AFP the prisoners may have swallowed poison to avoid the humiliation of a trial or to avoid divulging strategic information.
He did, however, say that no such group suicide had ever happened in the past.
Another possibility is that Chadian security forces poisoned the prisoners, Bukarti said, perhaps to avenge the deaths of 98 soldiers in a March 23rd attack on a base at Bohoma, in the Lake Chad area.
It was the largest one-day loss the vaunted Chadian army has ever suffered, and it prompted the massive military operation against Boko Haram.
Bukarti noted that humanitarian groups had reported “thousands” of killings of suspected Boko Haram members by the region’s armies without due process.
“The third possible scenario is that Chad never captured those Boko Haram fighters in the first place. It could be that Chad exaggerated the figure of the fighters it arrested just as many see the 1,000 they said they killed as inflated,” Bukarti said. “The only way to save face in this case would be to concoct a story like this.”
Furthermore, it is not unlikely that if left in prison, or spread around different prisons, they would start recruiting others for the terrorist group, and they were eliminated as a result of that.
The operation in the Lake Chad area is ramping up with both the Nigerian and Chadian armies carrying out large attacks on various Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda in West Africa Province and ISIS positions in the area.
On April 10th, Chadian authorities said that approximately 1,000 Boko Haram militants had been killed in the operations which started 6 days earlier. As a result, 52 Chadian soldiers had also been killed.
There are also reports that the Chadian army is limiting its operation against the militants on its own territory, as Nigeria appears to be contributing too little to the fight.
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