LAGOS, Nigeria — Nearly 600 Nigerian officers and troops faced charges before a court-martial Wednesday, the army said. An unprecedented number of soldiers is believed to be on trial for alleged offenses related to the ongoing fight against an Islamic uprising in the northeast.
Army spokesman Col. Sani Usman said 579 officers and troopers are before two courts-martial taking place in Abuja, the capital, to ensure a "quick dispensation of justice, discipline and professionalism." He gave no details to journalists, including when the trials began.
Last year, three courts-martial condemned 72 soldiers to death by firing squad for alleged cowardice, mutiny, aiding the enemy and other charges related to fighting Boko Haram extremists.
Human rights lawyer Femi Falana said the trials were "a travesty" and held in secret because evidence provided by his clients was a condemnation of Nigeria's military establishment, indicating corrupt officers often divert money meant for salaries and arms.
"Instead of bringing such unpatriotic officers to book, the military authorities have engaged in the diversionary tactics of wasting the lives of innocent soldiers by sentencing them to death without any legal justification," he charged.
Falana said the army was making scapegoats of inexperienced soldiers — his clients were aged between 21 and 25 — sent into battle with little training and insufficient weapons.
At the time, soldiers told The Associated Press that many fled the battlefield because they ran out of bullets. They said Boko Haram was better armed than Nigerian troops.
Since then Nigeria has acquired new weapons and this year a multinational force of troops from Nigeria and its neighbors has driven the extremists from the towns and villages where Boko Haram had declared an Islamic caliphate.
Falana and other lawyers have appealed to the Federal High Court to overturn the convictions and death sentences, arguing the courts-martial were unconstitutional because they were not fair trials.
The fate of the soldiers may be decided by the new administration of former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari, a disciplinarian who takes office as president next week.
Associated Press writer Bashir Adigun contributed to this report from Abuja, Nigeria.
This story has been corrected to say that three courts-martial were held last year, not two as stated previously.