Nigerian rights panel begins probe of military

STORY: A special Nigerian human rights panel began investigating on Tuesday reports by Reuters that the army massacred children and ran a secret forced abortion program in its campaign against Islamist insurgents.

And the panel said it would refer for prosecution those it considered guilty of rights violations.

The Nigerian military has always denied the reports, first published in December, and has said it would not carry out its own investigation because the reports weren't true.

On Tuesday Anthony Ojukwu, executive secretary of the government-appointed National Human Rights Commission, or NHRC, publicly launched the seven-member investigation panel led by a retired Supreme Court judge in Abuja.

''It is the hope of the commission and indeed every Nigerian, that this panel will work hard with all the human and other resources at their disposal, to investigate and unravel the truth behind these allegations, and ensure that justice is done in all appropriate cases."

Reuters reported in December, based on dozens of witness accounts and documentation, that the military abortion program involved terminating at least 10,000 pregnancies among women and girls, many of whom had been kidnapped and raped by Islamist militants.

A second Reuters report that month, again citing dozens of witnesses, said that the army intentionally killed children in the war, under a presumption they were, or would become, terrorists.

Nigerian military leaders said the abortion program did not exist and that children were never targeted for killing.

The NHRC panel's chairman is Justice Abdu Aboki.

"It is now our job as a panel, to investigate all the allegations of gross human rights violations raised in the report.''

The NHRC has no powers to prosecute human rights violators but can recommend prosecution for offenders.

The panel's responsibilities include determining the culpability of individuals and institutions in the alleged rights violations and referring any violators requiring prosecution to the Attorney General, said Ojukwu.

The panel would also determine damages or compensation in relation to any violation of human rights, he said.

Ojukwu did not say how long the investigations would take.

Although largely independent, rights groups say the NHRC is inadequately funded and its lack of prosecuting powers has weakened its ability to effectively bring offenders to account.