Nigerian gunmen free 119 inmates in prison break

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REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- Heavily armed gunmen on motorbikes stormed a Nigerian prison, blew open the front gate and freed 119 inmates, authorities said Thursday.

No group claimed responsibility for the attack late Wednesday in the town of Koton-Karifi in Koji state, which left one guard dead. About 25 inmates were later recaptured, according to Nigerian prison officials.

The Nigerian radical Islamic rebel group Boko Haram, responsible for several major suicide bomb attacks since last year, has a history of freeing its members from prison, along with other inmates. In 2010, it set free about 750 prisoners in Bauchi state, including many Boko Haram members. It also freed prisoners in a series of coordinated attacks on the northern city of Kano last month.

However, Wednesday’s prison attack by about 20 gunmen differed from previous Boko Haram prison breaks: It was further south than the group’s usual sphere of operations in the northern and predominantly Muslim states, and according to Nigerian authorities, there were no Boko Haram members in the jail.


A spokeswoman for the prison authority in Koji state, Hadiza Aminu, told Nigeria’s Vanguard newspaper that it was believed the attackers were members of a robbery gang freeing other members of the gang.

The attack underscored the security problems in Nigerian jails, and the ready access to weapons for militants and criminals.

Nigeria has about 45,000 prisoners, 70% of them awaiting trial, according to Amnesty International’s 2011 report on human rights in the West African nation. Inmates wait an average of five years in jail before facing trial, according to the report.

All 119 escapees in Wednesday’s attack had been awaiting trial.

‘Human rights violations are prevalent in Nigeria’s justice system. Arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and failure to hold trials within a reasonable tomes are features of many inmates’ experience. Seven out of 10 people held behind bars in Nigeria’s prisons have not been convicted of any offense. They are waiting in appalling conditions to be tried,’ the report said


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-- Robyn Dixon