ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — Twelve soldiers fighting an Islamic insurgency in northeast Nigeria have been sentenced to death by firing squad for mutiny and attempted murder of their commanding officer.
In a decision read early Tuesday by Brig. Gen. Chukwuemeka Okonkwo, the military tribunal found 12 soldiers guilty and five others innocent. One was sentenced to 28 days in jail with hard labor.
All the accused denied the charges. They all appeared to be in their 20s, and ranged in rank from private to corporal.
The revolt occurred after a convoy of soldiers was ordered to drive at night on a road frequently attacked by Boko Haram Islamic extremists. The soldiers initially refused, saying it was a suicide mission. But they eventually followed orders and were ambushed on May 13 by insurgents on the road from the northeast town of Chibok. An unknown number were killed.
Chibok is the town from which more than 270 schoolgirls were kidnapped a month earlier. More than 50 escaped and the rest remain captive.
The failure to rescue the girls is a sign of the inability of Nigeria's military and government to contain a 5-year-old Islamic uprising that has killed thousands, with soldiers accused of gross human rights abuses in the process. Demoralized soldiers have told The Associated Press that they are outgunned by the insurgents, frequently are not paid in full, and feel abandoned on the battlefield, left without enough ammunition or food. Endemic corruption in Nigeria means millions of dollars budgeted for the fight against the extremists goes missing.
When the bodies of the ambushed soldiers were brought to the barracks in the northeastern city of Maiduguri on May 14, the soldiers revolted, throwing stones at their commanding officer, firing into the air and then shooting at him. Several bullets hit the armor-plated vehicle in which he sought refuge. The officer, Maj. Gen. A. Mohammed, was unharmed.
The judgment describes an embarrassing scene where the second in command, Lt. Col. E. Azanda "has to dash for his dear life but discovered from where he was taking cover that soldiers eventually directed their shots" at Mohammed. It adds that Mohammed in his testimony said, "Thank God for the staff officer who rushed him into his car and the fact that the staff car is an armor-plated vehicle."
The judgment issued by the nine-member court martial panel said the soldiers accused their officers of cowardice and threatened to shoot them.
The court martial panel said it "considered the gravity of the offense alleged, particularly the attempt to kill the general officer commanding 7 Division, Nigerian Army, and it's likely effect on the counter-insurgency operations in the northeast as well as its implications on national security."
Before sentencing, the soldiers' private lawyers pleaded for leniency saying some of the defendants support aged parents, others are the sole bread winners in their family, and some of them had served in the army for 10 years, including in foreign peacekeeping missions
Journalists who were barred from attending the trial were invited to hear the reading of the verdict and the sentencing, which are both subject to review by military authorities.
The judgment did not say what the soldiers said in their defense during the trial.
Boko Haram has made huge gains in recent weeks, seizing a string of towns along the border with Cameroon where they have declared an Islamic caliphate under Shariah law.
Faul reported from Johannesburg.