Trials of Boko Haram suspects in Nigeria will take place behind closed doors with no media present, a justice ministry official with knowledge of the matter told AFP on Friday.
The move was made on security grounds following discussions between the government and the Department of State Services intelligence agency.
“There will be no access to the media,” said the official, who asked not to be identified.
“The decision was based on the need for confidentiality because of security issues that may come up during the trial.”
The justice ministry announced last week that the trials of more than 1,600 suspects were scheduled to begin from October 9.
It blamed delays in prosecution on poor investigation techniques such as lack of forensic evidence, “over-reliance on confession-based evidence” and logistical problems.
As of September 11, only 13 cases linked to the eight-year insurgency had been concluded, with nine convictions, according to the government.
Human rights groups have criticised Nigeria’s military for the arbitrary arrest of civilians and detention of suspects for lengthy periods of time without access to legal counsel.
The announcement that due process was finally to begin was given a cautious welcome but a ban on media access will likely raise concerns about transparency.
The ministry source said the British High Commission and US Embassy in Abuja, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the International Red Cross would be given “observer status”.
“They will be able to monitor how proceedings are carried out and obviously the suspects will be given legal representation,” he added.
The trials will take place in military detention facilities in Kainji, Kogi state, and New Bussa, in Niger state, both in central Nigeria.
Hearings will also be held in the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, where Boko Haram was founded in 2002 and which has been at the epicentre of the long-running violence.
Umar Ado, a defence lawyer based in northern Nigeria’s biggest city, Kano, described the move to shut out the media as “legally wrong”, as justice needed to be seen to be done.
“Freedom of information demands that the media be allowed access to court trials because they represent the public which they keep informed,” he said.
Security concerns were not enough to justify a ban, said Ado.
“Holding court proceedings ‘in camera’ is as good as denying the public the right to know how the trial is carried out, which sends the wrong signal that justice is not served or the process is compromised.”