THE UNJUST JUSTICE SYSTEM – by Gana Samuel Stephen

In Nigeria, wrongful convictions often pass through our judicial system undetected for some time, and at an alarming rate that the walls of our prisons are beyond what will be considered as overcrowded. Why this doesn’t plague the minds of individuals within the system is a mystery almost at par with the trinity.  Remarkably, society is seemingly comfortable with the erroneous truth that everyone within the walls of the prison deserve to be there Are there obstacles at all within the system itself that contributes to these problems? Is the culture of keeping suspects on awaiting trial the standard of practice? Are they actually rooted in a skewed interpretation of the law, or the law works more on paper? Does the system really give succor to indignant suspects? And if it does, how do victims seek relief in a judicial system that moves on a slow pace? Is there a political will to do justice? Certainly we cannot overlook these questions and neither can we be silent to the fact that with each passing day, the Nigerian system seems to work opposite to what our laws clearly provide.

At the policing level, which is the first active limb of the criminal justice system, there is overwhelming evidence showing that the police in carrying their basic duties compromise and practice far below global best practices. It is a common police procedure and in fact the standard for people to be randomly arrested and accused of grievous crimes as serious as murder, in the expectation that a case will be built around such arrest that is – working towards the answer – rather than via any scientific approach towards investigation of crime and regard to the rights of the accused person. This process is accompanied at most times with intimidation and show of force by police officers; it is in fact a norm that suspects are brutalized from the point of arrest and even in police custody.

 A male inmate who had been tortured in police custody said, “The police used rubber to tie my hands and arms. They said I had committed robbery.” His palms were blistered and peeling and his arms were crisscrossed with dark lines as a result of the wounds. His left hand hung limp. He was not treated for his injuries. Many inmates who have been in police custody get to court with injuries and wounds they got from arrest.  

The ultimate goal of this practice is to extract confessions of guilt from suspects by any means including the severest forms of torture as well as inhumane and degrading treatment. It is common practice for the police to hold accused persons under the nebulous principle called a “Holden charge,” with a view towards circumventing the person’s constitutional right not to be held for an unreasonable length of time, or be charged within a reasonable time as stipulated by the constitution. It is common place for accused persons to be kept in police detention well beyond the statutory 24 hour maximum within which they should be informed of the facts and grounds for their arrest, and indeed charged to court within 48 hours of arrest as guaranteed by Section 35(3) of the 1999 constitution.

Although bail is considered to be the right of an accused person, and as such advertised as free, police bail for the simplest of crimes carry with it a token of appreciation for a job well done, and even at that,  it is normal practice to deny bail even for petty crimes. This practice is commonly referred to as “police bail.” This happens most a times without services of a lawyer at this preliminary stage of the process when they require legal advise the most, as suspects are been forced to sign confessional statements or even tricked into admitting to commit a crime they know nothing about.

At this stage where a criminal matter is at its preliminary stages, a strong foundation of human rights abuses is prevalent. It is in fact where the suspects begin to contemplate the possibility that he actually committed the said offence.

 Next is the arraignment, where a police officer charge the already defeated suspect to a magistrate court who in most cases lack jurisdiction to entertain the matter so, the suspect is remanded in prison custody pending the advice of Director of Public Prosecution (DPP); another process which expends time, or even culminate in charging the suspect for a higher offence than the one committed. An inmate in Abakaliki prison during an interview with HRCRC said, “Me and my cousin [sic] stole a motorcycle to sell and pay SARS operatives who arrested my brother but we were caught before we sold the motorcycle. The owner said he does not want the case to go far but the police insisted we both pay twenty thousand naira for our bail or they forward the matter. My cousin was able to raise the money but I could not. On our first day in court, the magistrate granted him bail which he perfected and I was remanded in prison and this is two years since I last had my case in court”. After further investigation, HRCRC discovered that the said cousin who happens to be a co-accused was actually charged before the magistrate for stealing which is bailable while the other was charged for armed robbery on which the magistrate lacks jurisdiction hence his long stay – awaiting advice from DPP. 

 From the moment the suspect enters the walls of the prisons; his case is a forgotten issue, a term the criminal justice system termed as “Holden charge,” and which our courts described as alien to our laws but still a norm utterly practiced. Statistics obtained from the two Federal Prisons in Ebonyi State suggest that awaiting trial inmates held under this nebulous practice of Holden charge constitute a large number on the list. Such is the case of Chukwudi mentioned above. He lamented that all he wanted was just his day in court. –  “I just want to go to court let those who accuse me come forward and prove their allegations.” Chukwudi had been on Holden charge for over four years until HRCRC facilitated his release through Gaol Delivery in June of 2019.

Cases like these tainted with different types of Human Rights abuses get to courts from the police, only to meet a judicial system which in all fairness contributes amply to these abuses. Judicial officers write in long hand. Sometime they don’t sit on time or at all may be as a result of personal exigencies. The prosecution of criminal cases in the Magistrate Courts is done mostly by police officers. Most of the time, they don‘t have their witnesses in court and as such will ask for adjournment. In such cases they need advice from the Director of Public Prosecution, it may take months or even years to obtain because of the bureaucratic bottleneck in the administration of justice and general administration in Nigeria. 

The case of Sunday (23), an inmate illustrates the situation of many awaiting trials: He was first brought before a magistrate on 6 December 2010. He was at that time fourteen years old, a minor, and arrested on suspicion of armed robbery. The magistrate did not have the jurisdiction to handle his case and remanded him in prison, pending the police investigation. When his case was transferred to the High Court, he had two different judges assigned to his case an on each occasion, both started de novo – from the beginning.  At the time of HRCRC visit, eight years and two months had passed and he is on still awaiting trial. Sunday, who is now 23 said; “I have no lawyer and none was offered me either.” He denies that he had anything to do with the murder case. According to him, “There was a fight in my village between two gangs and one gang member was killed. Two days later, the police came and arrested me and eleven other persons.”

The Paucity of Legal Representation and the near absence of Pro-Bono Services have further worsened these abuses. In Nigeria, over 70 percent of accused persons are indigent and therefore unable to secure legal representation. To combat this problem, the government established Legal Aid Council, but the program is financially handicapped. In most cases, the accused person’s first real contact with a lawyer comes when they are charged before a magistrate after being remanded into custody, which is euphemistically referred to as an “overnight case.” This is clearly at variance with the requirements of the Nigerian constitution.

Suspects in Nigeria are systematically denied a range of human rights. Stakeholders throughout the Nigerian criminal justice system are culpable for maintaining this situation. This anchored around the inefficient machinery of the administration of justice, and hinges largely on how the police go about their duties usually in violation of the laws they are meant to protect. The judiciary in turn fails to ensure that all inmates are tried within reasonable time and then the prisons cannot ensure that facilities are adequate for the health and well-being of the prisoners. Severe overcrowding and lack of funds have created a deplorable situation in Nigeria’s prisons

Because the majority of wrongfully convicted persons or persons who suffer human rights abuses are indignant people, and huge legal fees and barrister’s fee note to contend with, it falls on the NGOs to take on the task. With funding as a major constraint, HRCRC did the little it could, with regular visits to police stations, prisons and the remand home, to review cases of indignant people facing human right abuses by authorities meant to uphold these rights. This resulted in the release of over 30 inmates on Holden charge, free legal representation for indignant victims of Human Rights abuses, and reintegration for the released inmates.

Much needs to be done. There are a lot of things we cannot undo, but to allow the innocent and indignant suffer Human Rights abuses is one thing that can be undone and HRCRC is taking the charge.  

THE UNJUST JUSTICE SYSTEM – by Gana Samuel Stephen

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