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Secret Nigeria island prison a haunting reminder

ITA OKO ISLAND, Nigeria — The prison, cut out of the dense jungle that engulfs this island outside Lagos, never officially existed in records, though critics of Nigeria's military rulers were locked up here decades ago in harsh conditions.

Ita Oko Island, accessible only by boat and helicopter, allowed Nigeria's military governments to hold opponents far from public scrutiny in the swamps of Lekki Lagoon. A newspaper expose in 1988 forced officials to close the prison, though local authorities later reopened it for what appears to be a failed $1 million effort to rehabilitate the gang members who dominate Lagos' streets.

As Nigeria plans to open another classified facility to hold and interrogate members of a radical Islamist sect, the Ita Oko Island prison's failed state shows the dangers posed by operating secret prisons and stands as a haunting reminder of past abuses of power that seem quickly forgotten.

"We're in the same situation as far as I am concerned as we were in 20 or 30 years ago, but the scenarios and the narrative are different," said Olisa Agbakoba, a lawyer whose civil rights group helped expose the prison. "We have a rapacious political party in power determined to do everything to retain power and the struggle for power is so intense now that I would not put it past the ruling party to conceal anything to keep its power, including abuses of human rights."

The prison island sits about 60 miles outside of Lagos, a rural area where villagers still make a living fishing along the long white sand beaches of the Atlantic Ocean. The 4 square-mile island is just inland in the lagoon, a wide expanse of water only lightly traveled by locals.

In 1978, then-military ruler Olusegun Obasanjo, who would become the country's elected president, opened the prison he later described as a work farm. But it wasn't until military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, now a perennial presidential candidate, that the prison became a massive holding cell for political prisoners, Agbakoba said.

Under a Buhari decree, anyone deemed by the military government to be a security risk could be imprisoned. Though such sentences were to last only a few months, many were detained indefinitely in Nigeria's mismanaged prisons.

Those deemed to be a major political risk were to Ita Oko by helicopter, where they worked on the farm and had no contact with the outside world, Agbakoba said. Even today, as the country has become a democracy with the guise of free information laws, it remains unclear how many inmates died on the prison island.

"It was abused by prison authorities," Agbakoba said. "If you misbehave, they said we'll send you as punishment to" the island.

In 1988, the wife of one inmate who discovered her husband had been sent there slipped a note to Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka. Soyinka was on the board of Agbakoba's Civil Liberties Organization, which later traveled to the island with a journalist from The Guardian newspaper who published a story exposing the prison. Authorities quickly closed the prison.