The Police and civic groups working on children's rights are trading blames in Eket, Akwa Ibom State, on who ordered the Friday 3 July police attack on the 202 children in the charity home of the Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN).
Five armed police officers broke into the house of Sam Ikpe-Itauma, CRARN President, pretending to be donors, and seized computers, camera, personal items and a number of documents from his office according to Gary Foxcroft, Programme Director of Stepping Stones Nigeria, a partner organization that supports CRARN's work in a statement circulated to international human rights organizations.
Mr. Foxcroft said, in his statement, that the police, unable to reach Mr. Itauma, subsequently beat and wounded a number of the CRARN children who were protesting against the attempted "arrest" of Mr. Itauma.
"Two children, Idongesit Akpan, 12, and Stella Okon, 11, were beaten unconscious and are now undergoing emergency medical treatment in hospital" the statement claimed, adding that "the police also unlawfully arrested Mr. Ikpe-Itauma's wife, Elizabeth, and another CRARN staff member, Eseme and took them to Eket Police station where they were held, without charge, for over 24 hours before being freed on bail."
However, the police commissioner for the state, Walter Rugbere, responding to the claims of Mr. Foxcroft, was sharp and stern, saying: "It's the biggest lie, you can't just go and beat up children, and it's not true." Mr. Rugbere insisted that "If there is anything like that, I should have heard of it. I am the commissioner of police, nothing like that has happened. I don't think I've heard of anything like that."
CRARN and Stepping Stone workers are nevertheless standing to their claims, maintaining that they believe the police assault was connected to the much publicised Channel 4 documentary, Saving Africa's Witch Children, which brought the abuse of children, accused of witchcraft in Akwa Ibom to light late last year.
Partnership for Justice, PFJ, another civic group which works on the rights of children, sided with CRARN in a release Monday 6 July in Lagos adding that it was "disappointed that the Nigeria Police Force, which is supposed to be an agency for enforcing the provisions of the Act, has turned itself against it."
"It is even more disappointing that Akwa Ibom State which has joined other states in passing the Child Rights Law could stoop so low to desecrate its provisions by conniving with the Police to invade and beat up children and persons at the Network" Said PFJ in the release signed by its Senior Partner, John Oziegbe.
The documentary cited by CRARN featured some of the abuse victims who were being housed by the organisation, and also named a religious leader, Helen Ukpabio, as one of those perpetrating the branding of children as witches. Mrs. Ukpabio, whose Pentecostal church has produced several movies one of which reportedly presented children as witches, was also featured in the video as she denied the allegation.
Mr. Ikpe-Itauma also drew attention to the presence of Lagos lawyer, Victor Ukutt, who is Mrs. Ukpabio's attorney, in the company of the attacking police officers.
Mr. Ukutt, in a telephone interview with NEXT, declined to confirm whether or not he had accompanied the police officers to arrest the CRARN staff, asserting in a zigzag way that: "I did not say that I was there, I am not also saying that I was not there."
Yet it appeared that Mr. Ukutt sought to challenge the claims of CRARN regarding the basis of the police attack when he argued that "they have a case to settle with the police, they should go and settle their case with the police [because] Mrs. Ukpabio had filed a law suit against the charity for piracy of the intellectual property of Mrs Helen Ukpabio.
"They counterfeited her film and used it to make a documentary and showed it on Chanel 4 and said Mrs Helen Ukpabio labelled children as witches" Mr. Ukutt fumed.
Nonetheless, counsel to CRARN, Ben Ndedde, denied the existence of a suit filed against the charity by Mrs. Ukpabio. "We have not seen any suit from them. We have only received a letter threatening to sue. In the letter, they demanded that we should pay them N10 billion," he said.
"Since we received that first letter, we have not heard from them again," Mr. Ndedde added.
Reacting to the CRARN assault, over 200 children, branded as witches, staged a solidarity protest in support of their assaulted peers in Eket Monday 6 July.
The protesting children, abandoned by their parents and sheltered by CRARN, were led by Mr. Ikpe-Itauma who told NEXT, in a telephone interview, that five men in plain clothes arrived in the centre at about 10am on Friday armed with pistols and AK-47 rifles in a light brown salon car and refused to disclose their identity, claiming that they had come from Abuja seeking to arrest him.
Mr. Ikpe-Itauma who now fears for his life believes that "their intention may have been to kill me and then conceal their identity," and added that "I've been suspicious of hoodlums for some time now, so when they came, I ran into my room."
Also reacting to the development, Maryam Uwais, an Abuja based attorney and National Human Rights Commission (NHR) Special Rapporteur on the Rights of the Child, called for a more open minded approach to solve the problem."The government just has to budget for and step in with laws, policies, institutions and mechanisms for implementation (including advocacy) and also ensure formidable support for those NGOs and individuals who work in this sphere of child protection, especially because, as events have demonstrated, it can be a very dangerous venture," she said.