44 dead in Chad cell were civilians, not jihadists

By Douglas Mubiru

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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.