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RIGHTSView: CLARA CHIME’s ORDEAL AND PRISON REFORMS

By Emmanuel Onwubiko on 12/11/2013

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But for the courage displayed by Chief Femi Falana, the Lagos-based Senior Advocate of Nigeria, most people would have been deceived by the massive media propaganda dished out generously by the spin doctors of Governor Sullivan Chime of Enugu State that the wife of their boss, Mrs. Clara Chime, is not a victim of alleged excessive domestic abuses and arbitrary detention on the orders of her husband. Nigerians are beginning to come to terms with facts surrounding this bizarre story because the governor recently staged a media showmanship to tell the increasingly anxious Nigerians that his wife was ‘sick’ and that he indeed restricted her freedom of movement to, among other objectives, protect her integrity and respectability from public ridicule. Accompanied by a sponsored psychiatrist hired by the governor to ‘treat’ his ‘detained’ wife the governor claimed that she is undergoing treatment.

The media showmanship nearly achieved the dramatic objective for which it was staged, which is to try to confuse discerning Nigerians and make them believe that Femi Falana was an interloper who was never invited by the wife to help her regain her freedom from the alleged abusive relationship and arbitrary detention. But Femi Falana being who he is known – for being so principled and never compromising – insisted that Mrs. Chime briefed him to, among other noble goals, regain freedom from the abusive relationship. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) which also stepped into the matter based on the petition by Mrs. Clara Chime through her lawyer has begun preliminary investigation but sadly jumped the gun by reportedly drawing some unacceptable conclusions, including the claim that Mrs. Chime indeed had access to certain basic freedoms, thus contradicting the claims heaped by Mrs. Clara herself.

The NHRC has however attributed the misinterpretation to some reporters since, according to it, there was no preliminary report on this matter since it is still being investigated. Anything to the contrary would have been preposterous because a single visit by the Rights commission is grossly insufficient to enable the panel come up with a time tested and time honoured conclusions including the bizarre claim that Mrs. Chime suffers from hallucination even without subjecting her to critical medical test by qualified personnel.

The NHRC is not known to have gone with a medical team but stated its readiness to bring an independent medical panel to examine Mrs. Chime. The question, then, is, why the hurry to draw conclusions just so as to validate some propaganda claims of supporters of Governor Chime? Something would have been said to be fishy somewhere and soon it would have become clearer because nothing is hidden under the sun for too long especially in our jet age of several scientific discoveries. Thankfully, the NHRC is headed by an accomplished professor of law in the person of Ben Amgwe, who understands the implications of jumping into conclusion before a matter is conclusively determined. Chidi Odinkalu, Chairman of the Governing Board of the Rights Commission who is another thoroughbred professional law teacher, was quick to dismiss the insinuation that the commission was compromised by Governor Chime to reach a predetermined conclusion in his favour.   

Mrs. Chime’s allegations are strong and must be handled professionally to prevent an innocent woman from remaining a prisoner just because she is married to a powerful politician. We must note that under the constitution, the fundamental freedoms belonging to Citizen Clara Chime are inalienable and sacrosanct and cannot be abridged just because she is married to a powerful political office holder. The report in the media on November 11, 2013 that she was being ‘kicked’ out of Enugu State Government House on the orders of the governor must be thoroughly investigated by the NHRC and Mrs. Clara Chime should be accorded the highest protection from coming to harm’s way from some overzealous security loyalists of the governor vexed by the exposure of the shabby treatment meted out allegedly to the Enugu State First Lady. I am concerned about Clara Chime’s detention and will not go into several allegations bordering on alleged infidelity in that celebrated marriage since that angle is already in the public domain and has severally been dismissed as tissues of lies by the governor.

Mrs. Clara Chime’s ordeal brings us to my topic of discussion, which is on prisons following a recent visit this writer undertook with the NHRC for a prison audit beginning with the Uyo Prison in Akwa Ibom State and the startling revelations of neglect and arbitrary detention of several awaiting trial inmates in that derelict prison facility. We found out at that prison audit visit that the following facts are self evident:

*That the Uyo Prison which holds both male and female detainees was built in 1954 with a capacity to house 600 detainees but as at the time of the audit exercise penultimate week, there were 817 detainees, comprising of 786 males and 32 females. Out of the 817 detainees, 657 were awaiting trial.

*That the detainees are fed with only 200 naira per day, even as the Executive Secretary of the National Human Rights Commission delivered the cheering news that the National Assembly is working on changing the situation.

A representative of the detainees addressed the team, stating that many of them are denied their rights as they have been remanded in prison since before the creation of Akwa Ibom State. He pleaded with the distinguished guests to use their good offices to effect their release.

A female detainee, who also addressed the visiting team, stated that out of 32 detainees in the female section, 26 were awaiting trial and out of the 26 two are nursing mothers who also have their babies with them in the prison. She also mentioned that two 70-year-old women were in prison, awaiting trial and one of them was diabetic.

Additionally, there were facts to show that there were 32 female detainees housed in a separate section of the prison. Out of the 32, 26 were awaiting trial while 6 were convicts. 2 of the awaiting trial detainees had their children of between 6 and 7 months with them in the prison. Also, at the female section, they were women of about 70years, 1 was convicted while the other was awaiting trial.

Furthermore, it was observed that the female inmates’ carry out vocational activities like tailoring, hair dressing and beads making. 

Conversely, the he male section was observed to be over crowded. Some beds were without mattresses and the windows had no mosquito nets.

The vocational facilities available to the male detainees were carpentry, wood work and tailoring.

There was a hospital located within the prison premises. It was manned by a doctor, three nurses and three health workers. It has a capacity to admit up to 15 inmates.

According to the medical doctor at the Hospital, the hospital has basic drugs for treatment of illnesses such as malaria, aches and pains, hypertension, diabetes and antibiotics, which are usually supplied from the prison headquarters in Abuja. Other drugs for life threatening illness like HIV and Tuberculosis as gotten from the State’s General Hospital. The prison hospital has a functional ambulance which conveys detainees to the State General hospital when the medical case is beyond the prison hospital. However, the hospital lacks a medical laboratory to carry out investigative diagnosis of ailments. In light of this, medical investigations are said to be carried out, when required at either the Teaching Hospital or General Hospital and paid for by the prison.

Among the myriad of problems facing Nigeria today as discovered by my research assistant Miss. Sylvia Okonkwo [esq], over congestion/ decongestion of its prisons is palpable. The pain and suffering being experienced by detainees inside Nigeria prisons are untold and without measure it is now at a level when a judge is sending an accused person to prison custody pending his trial is like indirectly sentencing him/her to death. The inevitable agonies and mental torture he/she is going to face as a result of the terrible condition of the prisons have rubbished the presumption of his/her innocence before guilt, and will surely reduce his/her life span if he is lucky to ever come out alive. The pitiable aspect of it is that many of Nigerian detainees find themselves in those houses of horror called prison custody for offences that they may know nothing about but because they were at a wrong place at a wrong time.

What do you say of somebody who is charged for wandering and ended up spending two whole years in prison custody for an offence that is either not known to law or which may attract a maximum term of three months thereabout in prison if found guilty?   

The problem of prison decongestion in Nigeria appears to be intractable because our leaders do not view prison reforms as imperative.

There are 227 prisons in Nigeria which accommodate over 40,000 inmates. And the number of prisons is grossly inadequate because if the facilities were adequate in number and in size, there will be no over congestion.

The management of the Nigerian prisons is placed under the “exclusive legislative list” and therefore being controlled solely by the Federal Government. Most criminal cases emanate and are tried in the state. The states mostly send accused persons to prison or prison custody. State governments have the statistics on the number of people (accused persons) that they send to jail or prison custody. So centralising the management of the prisons is a big problem. In developed countries like United Kingdom, United States, Germany and so on, prison facilities are built and managed by the Federal, State and Local Government. In fact there are some prison facilities being managed privately in the United States.

Near absence if Pro-bono services by lawyer. If an individual is facing a fresh charge in a court Nigeria, the accused can either plead guilty and go straight to serve prison sentence or plead not guilty and go to prison custody.   

If the accused is poor, and having no will, he needs to be encouraged because he needs a legal representative to assist him. In America, an active or practicing Attorney has a number of pro-bono cases he must do in a year and which he must report to the Bar Association. Pro-bono service by a lawyer is designed to assist an indigent/litigant or accused person to pursue his case so that he is not on his own. This is not readily available in Nigeria although it is now being proposed by the Human Rights Institute of the Nigeria Bar Association. The Legal Aid Council that would have been in charge of this has not been effective because of poor logistics and inadequate human resources. Very little help or not at all is coming the way of poor accused person in Nigeria, they are mostly on their own and so, will continue to congest the prisons.

Absence of Prison Alternative is another evil factor. Prison alternative like probation or suspended sentence, plea-bargaining, community service, parole are absent in Nigerian criminal justice system as regards misdemeanor or nonviolent offences. Here not to talk about serious offences like murder, armed robbery and treason. Even in those very serious offences including manslaughter, a convict who was sentenced to life or a number of years imprisonment may be entitled to parole by being of good behavior. Lack of basic and non-functional structures like national identity Card, I.T/connectivity, electricity, not knowing the population and accountability for assets surrendered are some of the challenges the programs will face.

Undue delay in criminal trial because according to Miss. Okonkwo, to be fair to poor awaiting trial detainees, their cases ought to be disposed off in good time, but the opposite is the case in Nigeria, this is because the Judges/Magistrates write in long hand, some of them sometimes may not sit on time as a result of personal or family problem. 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 such will ask for adjournment, where they need advice from the Director of public prosecution, it may take months or even years to obtain. After years of independence, Nigeria still apply most of the laws inherited from Britain. In fact it is embarrassing that we still find names of some of the streets in Britain in some of our criminal/penal codes and laws. Those laws are so old that they are no longer useful in this age.

Another drawback is the inadequate number of judges and magistrates to try cases in developed countries and where federalism is truly practiced, all the tiers of government, that is federal state and local government have the right to appoint judges and magistrates to try cases. In fact most of the cases in the United States are tried by country/district courts. In Nigeria the local government can only appoint customary court Judges who are all laymen and not authorised to try criminal cases. Even at the Federal and State level, it’s the same judge or magistrate that handles both criminal and civil cases.

Vehicles conveying awaiting trial detainees to court are not enough, it is a breach of detainee’s right to fair hearing to adjourn his case behind time because there is no vehicle to take him from his prison custody to court to answer to his charge or the only vehicle available breaks down. To add to all these is the consistent industrial strike by the judiciary workers which can keep detainees in custody for many months without calling their cases at all.  

On July 2007, Amnesty International delegates visited 10 prisons in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and Enugu, Lagos and Kano states. The delegates also visited a psychiatric hospital in Enugu State which housed a number of people with all kinds of illness who had been transferred there from prison, in its findings it had this to say “Nigeria’s prisons are filled with people whose human rights are systematically violated. Approximately 65 percent of the inmates are awaiting trial, most of whom have been awaiting for their trial for years. Most of the people in Nigeria’s prisons are too poor to pay lawyers and only one in seven of those awaiting trial have private legal representation.”

In recent years, the Nigerian Government has frequently displayed willingness to improve prison conditions and access to justice for those on pre-trial detention. The establishment of a Presidential Task Force on Prison Reforms and Decongestion led to the release of around 8,000 prisoners in 1999. However no long-term policy was adopted to address the problems in prisons and within a few years they were as congested as they have been before the release.

Since 2000, several working groups and committee on prison reforms have been established without much success.

Prisoners in Nigeria are systematically denied a range of human rights. Stakeholders throughout Nigeria criminal justice system are culpable for maintaining this situation.

The police do not bring suspects promptly before a judge or judicial officers; despite the 1999 constitution of Nigeria (as amended) which guarantees that this will occur within 24 hours (arraignment of an accused person), it usually takes weeks and in some cases months before suspects are brought before a Judge. Suspects are usually ill-treated in police custody, many are denied their right to contact their families or even a lawyer and in some police stations, suspects do not receive food. The police routinely use torture to extract confessions, and despite this being widely acknowledged by the police themselves, little is done to stop it, so say experts in numerous scholarly and investigative findings documented over the past decade.   

The judiciary has failed to ensure that all inmates are tried within a reasonable time. Indeed most inmates wait years for a trial, when inmates are convicted, most do not have the resources to pursue their right to appeal.

In breach of national and international law, the judiciary does not guarantee fair trial standards even in the case of minors.

The Federal Government has failed to implement the recommendations of many study groups and presidential committee over recent years, few of the promises made by the Federal Government have been carried out and this has led to the current problems being experienced in the country’s prisons.    

In a nutshell,  Sylvia Okonkwo [esq] found out that reformation of criminal justice system that will entail faster judicial procedure, decentralisation of the prison system from exclusive or concurrent legislative list, deterrence/societal positive mindset to ex convicts, victims interest, corruption free society, free legal services by lawyers to assist the poor, good IT connectivity, building of more prisons and renovating the existing ones, enhancing the welfare of prisoners/detainees, respecting the rights and privileges and dignity of prisoners’ detainees, improving the quality and management of the prison and judiciary machineries would be required to achieve prison decongestion in Nigeria.

It is high time the Nigerian Government faces up its responsibilities for those in its prisons.

RIGHTSVIEW appears twice a week on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The Columnist, popular activist Emmanuel Onwubiko, is a former Federal Commissioner of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission and presently National Coordinator of Human Rights Writers’ Association of Nigeria (HURIWA).

Source News Express

Posted 13/11/2013 12:53:26 AM

 

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