•‘Inside bail room where you are guilty simply because you have no money’
•Vicious cycle: Torture in police cells despite anti-torture law since 2017
By Levinus Nwabughiogu
Mr Anthony Okechukwu Ojukwu is the Executive Secretary, National Human Rights Commission, NHRC. Amid the #EndSARS protests, he speaks exclusively to Sunday Vanguard, giving a chilling account of human rights abuses and police brutality in Nigeria. He also points the way forward for the security agency. Excerpts:
Nigeria has been in the news basically because of #EndSARS protests and that brings to mind so many human rights abuses, violations and police brutality stories. What can you really tell us about human rights abuses in Nigeria?
There are human rights abuses in Nigeria but this is not peculiar to Nigeria. There are human rights abuses all over the world. The most important thing is that there should be accountability for human rights violations.
So, what we should try and build in our own environment is to ensure that, if there are human rights violations, there should be accountability for them. That is the clearest way to send a signal that you should not violate human rights.
If there is impunity and human rights violations go unpunished, not investigated or not dealt with well, there will be nothing to discourage who violates human rights.
And of course it is a notorious fact that within the Nigeria Police, the people, most of the time, don’t get a fair deal, just for the fact that the people are powerless and police is all powerful and, even where they oppress you, they are the people who will prosecute you in court and so, if they oppress you and decide not to prosecute you in court, there is nothing you can do.
So, what has happened is that, first of all, the issue of bail; bail is a right as long as it is not a capital offence but that is not the case. If you are being investigated and you need bail, you have to pay for it.
If you don’t have the money to pay, you will be subjected to all kinds of inhuman and degrading treatment; that is a violation of people’s right.
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In the first place, you start from the beginning of investigation. How do people get investigated by law enforcement agents? Most times, it is through a simple petition and the Constitution says if you are accused of any offence, you are innocent until proven guilty. But the pattern of investigation presupposes that you are already guilty and you have to now prove your innocence.
Otherwise, if there is a petition against anybody, there should be investigation, preliminary investigation to find out whether the allegation has any basis for you to now ask further questions, that is the presumption of innocence.
So, there is an allegation, the law should presume that the allegation is not true and give you a fair hearing, give you a fair opportunity, carry out some basic investigation to find out whether there is any truth in that petition that warrants further questions but that is not the case.
You see that once there is an allegation against anybody, the first level of investigation is arrest and you are put behind bars and, once you are put behind bars, a whole lot of scenario plays out. If you are able to be extorted and you pay some money, maybe you get your freedom and then you start following up.
Then there will be other levels of extortion if you are able to pay your way too, the matter would be looked upon on the facts of it and then you may not end up being charged to court.
So, even if you are innocent, you have already been subjected to some discomfort in terms of your arrest and detention and then having to pay money to get your freedom.
That means you are already adjudged guilty by being made to pay money; that is a violation of your rights. But if you are unfortunate and probably you don’t have the money, a lot of other scenarios also play out.
If you are not able to bring money for bail within the constitutional period of 48hours, they get jittery and in order to justify holding you beyond the constitutional period, they throw you to the court and when the case gets to court, at times even with the arraignment, you are, of course, now formally charged and then remanded in prison custody.
By this you are no longer in police custody and, of course, the case is adjourned and you start struggling to get a lawyer to apply for your bail and all of that.
Then if there is no evidence, the case will be adjourned and adjourned, the police will keep adjourning the case maybe for another six months.
You are on a journey until the magistrate now strikes out the case for want of evidence and you must have suffered that six months in detention for an offence you have not committed and you know our people, because of poverty, the ability to now bounce back and claim for their rights for compensation and apology is not there.
They say, “Well, I leave it to God”, and they go home and that has been the pattern. Well, there are also criminals. There is no doubt about that but they are also not spared; even though somebody is a criminal, they are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
But at times, the investigation process is more brutal in the sense that probably you are going to be tortured to confess. So, you go to court, more than 80% of the cases brought to court are confessional statements.
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Now it may be or may not be true but any evidence obtained through torture is not valid evidence and the law was not very clear on the consequences of torture.
The only thing it said was that if it gets to court and there is an allegation of torture for evidence when confessional statement was taken, that there will be a trial within a trial to find out if there was torture and if there was torture, the evidence is not accepted. But the torturer goes back and continues torturing the next accused person.
But there is an anti-torture legislation now in place since 2017 and, under that Act, if you torture and it is established you obtained evidence through torture, you will be tried for a criminal offence, but, to the best of my knowledge, I don’t think anybody has been convicted based on that because it is also police that is going to charge their own people for torture. So, it a vicious cycle.
With all of these challenges, how have you been able to curtail those excesses?
We have what we call a human rights desk in police stations but it is not everywhere, but we are trying to see how we can put this from the State Command to the Area Commander and to the Divisional Command of the police.
We are trying to train some of their own officers who will help them to make sure that human rights of accused persons are respected at the police station and we also organise training for the police to sensitize them on the right way to do things.
Now, the Police Act has also been passed and we try to put in provisions there to reduce the opportunities of violating human rights. Of course, we also push for the Administration of Criminal Justice Act which has now prescribed that while evidence is being taken from a suspect, there should be some basic guarantees.
For instance, it should be recorded with a camera and probably your lawyer or a family member should be around and so on and so forth. But despite all that, the challenge persists.
And, of course, you have seen the challenge in the #EndSARS movement which was a total rejection of the way, not only SARS but the entire police on how they have related with citizens over the years.
You just made some submissions to the Attorney General of the Federation where you made some recommendations about some persons that should be prosecuted or sacked. Tell me about that.
It is all about the struggle of the Commission over the years to investigate complaints against brutality by SARS and other officers of the police.
I remember that, as far back as 2006, 2007, 2008, the Commission, in collaboration with Network of Police Reforms in Nigeria, carried out public hearing; we called it then Public Hearing on Extra Judicial Killings and Police Abuse.
We captured that in our report and hinted that this was becoming a little bit endemic but you know that in our country, we don’t take things serious until they get out of hand.
Then, in 2017, the Commission, collaborating with Kleen Foundation and some civil society groups and NBA, we started holding public hearings on police reforms especially on SARS and the police and, while we were doing that, the #EndSARS movement broke out and that attracted the attention of Vice President Osinbajo then and he requested the Commission to embark on a full scale of SARS complaints and then to see how the police could be reformed. And the Commission, of course, went through that process.
We went to many parts of the country, listening to complaints from Nigerians and on the 3rd of August 2019, we submitted a report to the President and he then set up a white paper committee made up of myself, the Executive Secretary, the IG of Police and the Permanent Secretary of the Federal Ministry of Justice to look at it and advise government on the modalities for implementation.
And we did that and submitted that report to government in November 2019. Of course, government has studied the report, accepted our recommendations, but the only recommendation they did not accept was the issue of state and local government police because government was already implementing the community policing programme which, in the wisdom of government, has similarities with the state and local government police.
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What has happened now is that we are implementing the report. In that report, about 35 people were recommended for dismissal by the police because of the role they had played while 33 were recommended for prosecution.
Some others were recommended for demotion in rank while in some cases it was recommended that compensations of about N264million should be paid to victims.
Then there were also recommendations where it was required that the police should reinvestigate some cases and then there were cases where officers who had auctioned people’s property to themselves and refused to surrender to the panel were also to be arrested and prosecuted.
So what we did was to follow up on the implementation of the recommendations government had accepted; we had to take dossier and names of those who were supposed to be prosecuted to the Attorney General because the law says that any case requiring prosecution should be given to the AGF.
Then, the ones for dismissal were taken to the Police Service Commission and the IGP because they must use internal processes, give them formal queries and dismiss them from the system before you start prosecuting them because that is what the Public Service Rule requires.
Do you think your recommendations will be strictly followed?
Well, it is out there and, today, Nigeria is agitating that the police should be reformed based on that report and I have no doubt in my mind, and that is the only way to show sincerity of purpose in government.
If the government doesn’t implement that report, that means they will be saying that what the youths are protesting is clear. So, I am sure that report is going to be implemented, the action is already being taken.
Of course, you know that one of the recommendations was the disbandment of SARS and it has already been done. One of the recommendations was the amendment of the Police Act which has overdue because it was from colonial time, and that has already been done.
And now we are looking at individual officers and even the welfare of the police was one of the issues because, really, let us face the facts, the police officer doesn’t have what it takes for him to do his work optimally.
There is no argument about that because if you go to a police station to investigate a case, there is no fuel to put in their car, sometimes no stationery, no light.
Vanguard News Nigeria.
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