Boko Haram members poisoned in Chad prison, 44 dead

Forty four suspected members of Boko Haram who had been arrested in Chad during a recent operation against the jihadist group have been found dead in their prison cell, allegedly poisoned, Chad’s chief prosecutor has announced.

The prisoners were found dead on Thursday, Youssouf Tom said on television, and an autopsy carried out on four of the dead prisoners revealed traces of a lethal substance that had caused heart attacks in some of the victims and severe asphyxiation in the others. The dead men were among a group of 58 suspects captured during a major army operation around Lake Chad launched by the president, Idriss Déby Itno, at the end of March. Mr Tom said that following the fighting around Lake Chad, 58 members of Boko Haram had been taken prisoner and sent to [the capital city] N’Djamena for the purposes of the investigation.

He said that on Thursday morning, their jailers had told them that 44 prisoners had been found dead in their cell. Tom said that they had attended the scene.

“We have buried 40 bodies and sent four bodies to the medical examiner for autopsy,” he said. An investigation was ongoing to determine exactly how the prisoners had died, he said. Earlier this week, the justice minister, Djimet Arabi, told AFP the captured men had been handed over to the court system on Wednesday, and had been due in court for trial on Thursday. A security source, speaking on condition of anonymity told AFP that “the 58 prisoners were placed in a single cell and were given nothing to eat or drink for two days”. Mahamat Nour Ahmed Ibedou, secretary general of the Chadian Convention for the Protection of Human Rights (CTDDH), made similar accusations. Prison officials had “locked the prisoners in a small cell and refusing them food and water for three days because they were accused of belonging to Boko Haram,” Ibedou told AFP. “It’s horrible what has happened.” The government denied the allegations. “There was no ill-treatment,” Chad’s justice minister, Djimet Arabi, told AFP by telephone. “Toxic substances were found in their stomachs. Was it collective suicide or something else? We’re still looking for answers,” he said, adding that the investigation was still ongoing. One of the prisoners was transferred to hospital on Thursday, but he was “faring much better” and had rejoined “the other 13 prisoners still alive and who are doing very well,” the minister said.

The government launched the military operation against Boko Haram in response to a devastating attack on Chadian troops on March 23 at a base in Bohoma, in the Lake Chad marshlands, that killed 98 soldiers. It was the largest one-day loss the army has ever suffered. The operation, which ran from March 31 to April 8, has killed more than 1,000 of the group's fighters and cost the lives of 52 soldiers, according to a Chadian army spokesman. Idriss warned his allies in the region that Chad’s army will no longer take part in operations outside the country.