Human Rights groups, Police and Police Service Commission, lawyers, tell their stories in this concluding part of the story by JULIANA FRANCIS
Human right groups
Justine Ijeomah is the Executive Director of Human Rights, Social Development and Environmental Foundation (HURSDEF) based in Port Harcourt. His organization has been fighting extra judicial killings in Port Harcourt for years now. He has been arrested 24 times and received a deluge of threatening text messages from unknown persons. We met at the organisation’s office, located at 62, Ikwere Street, Mile 1, Diobu. Ijeomah spoke against extra-judicial killings with passion.
He wished he had the power to curtail the killings, if not out rightly stop it. Visibly vexed, he said: “The police will confiscate the victim’s property and share the property among themselves. I’ve been arrested several times and I have received threatening messages, but whom do I run to for safety? The job even becomes dangerous for me and my family members. We discovered that police frame victims for armed robbery because they want to cover up. Our government is not checking the excesses of the police. Nobody challenges the police’s impunity.
“There are many cases, yet nothing is being done to the police, especially because of influences of powers that be. Many judges handling these sorts of cases have been mysteriously transferred. Our interest in this fight is justice. Until we get justice, we’ll continue in the fight. We’re not even talking about innocent children, who had been killed in the streets.”
He recalled that on July, 4, 2008, policemen embarked on a series of arrests in Abonnema Wharf Waterfront in Port Harcourt. Among those raided and taken to Mile One Police Station, was Godgift Ferguson Ekerete, 24. Godgift and three young men were arrested in the raid. They were later shot and killed in the police station that same day. By the time Godgift’s parents got to the station, they learnt their son had been killed, but his corpse could not be located. They embarked on a search, until they reached the mortuary of Braithwaite Memorial Special Hospital. There, they saw and identified the corpse of their son. It was a heartbreaking moment for them. It was also gathered that most victims killed by policemen in Port Harcourt, used to be taken and abandoned at the mortuary. The mortuary had however been renovated.
Olatunde Oladipo Vincent is a human rights activist. He said that he had been detained in SARS, Ikeja, twice. He insisted that the place is not fit for a human being, no matter the offence the person had committed. According to him, everyone, including suspected criminals have fundamental human rights. Recalling how he was detained in the SARS cell, Vincent said: “I had a problem with the police and they arrested me. After my arrest, they brought charms, guns, and cutlass and placed them in front of me and took my picture. They tagged me an armed robber, who had been terrorizing the community. They went to my house and parked everything just as they do to armed robbers. They later took me in their vehicle, with one innocent boy, Edward, who was arrested as he was standing in front of his parents’ house.
“They took us to SARS. Some policemen, who knew me, said it was impossible; that I was not a robber. They said I was a human rights activist. They took me to the cell. One thing I quickly noticed in the cell, was that it symbolises man’s inhumanity to man.
“The head or marshal of the cell beat up people for no just cause. When I was in the cell, there was a boy they brought in. They said he had a problem with a man in a bank. Right there and then, police labelled him an armed robber!
“The boy was tortured there in my presence. He eventually gave up the ghost. You see so many people with deep wounds and stinking. There was never a time we were less than 80 in a cell. We slept on the bare floor.
“It was a terrible situation. They have a toilet which the 80 of us used. And you cannot take your bath except the marshal tells you to take your bath. It’s not every day you take your bath, except you pay the marshal.
“They pick people randomly and kill them. If a particular suspect is a confirmed armed robber and he is being treated in such an inhuman manner, people might not complain too much, but innocent people are being arrested and treated horribly too. They packed everybody, both civil and criminal cases together in a single cell. Most people wouldn’t be able to tell you what they saw. Even if it’s raining, the place is hot like an oven. The place is another world entirely. You don’t know whether it’s morning, noon or night. All that the suspect knows is that it is time for prayers and he’ll go for prayers.”
An Amnesty International’s newsletter: “Nigeria No Justice for the Dead,” dated February 2013, states: “In 2009, Amnesty International published a report, documenting extrajudicial executions and other unlawful killings by police in Nigeria. That report revealed a pattern of police killing 100 people every year. It found that many victims were unlawfully killed before or during arrest, while others were tortured to death in police detention. A large proportion of unlawful killings may have constituted extra judicial executions. In some cases, people disappeared after being taken into police custody. Amnesty International found that the police acted with almost total impunity; killings by police and deaths in police custody were not investigated and there was almost no action to hold police officers to account.”
The Network on Police Reforms in Nigeria, a nongovernmental organization, which acts as a watchdog over the affairs of police, has a lot to say about the issue in question. NOPRIN spokesman, Okechukwu Nwanguma, is like a man stung by a scorpion. He fumes: “One of NOPRIN’s recommendations after a public tribunal on police abuses in Nigeria held in 2010 in Owerri, Imo State is that the IGP should as a matter of urgency reorganize SARS and the entire anti-robbery operations of the Nigeria police force, so as to insulate them from abuse of office.
“The police in SARS, Enugu and many other places in the south east are being used by politicians and other influential persons to victimize their opponents or to settle disputes that are purely civil or communal. Therefore, a Human Rights Desk, as a matter of urgency, should be established in all the police stations in Nigeria, manned by a senior police officer.
“Rule of law must prevail in Nigeria and so the Nigeria Police Force must obey court orders and allow court processes to be served on it without hindrance. SARS has gained embarrassing notoriety, tainting the image of the Nigerian Police locally and internationally, and should either be scrapped or comprehensively reformed to conform to modern standards of policing or human rights- compliant policing.”
Statistics from the National Human Rights Commission is equally startling. The response from the agency said, Statistics might be different from actual situations on ground because not all cases are reported by those affected.
The data proves that although there is preponderance of extra-judicial killings by the police, especially those in SARS, the victims of such abuses have not embraced or realised that they can seek redress. Or maybe they do know, but fear that it’s an exercise in futility.
Ex-policemen differ on killings. Dr. Tsav Abubakar, a former Commissioner of Police, now late, has severally condemned the killing of suspects by police, describing it as a “new trend” in the Nigerian Police Force. Apparently disgusted at the level of the killings of suspects he witnessed in Gboko, Benue State, Abubakar wrote a petition to the National Human Rights Commission. He said: “Before you arrest an armed suspect and charge the person in court. Now, what some policemen do is to arrest and shoot and kill suspects under their custody. This is too bad. This is a new trend in the Nigeria Police Force.”
Abubakar said when he was a Commissioner of Police, there were no such killings. He added: “What government can do to stop such killings of suspects by the police is to make sure that any policeman who kills a suspect, is charged to court and prosecuted. But most times, you find some senior officers, shielding such policemen.”
A retired Deputy Inspector General of Police, Azubuko Udah, who was instrumental in coming up with the blueprint that led to amnesty being offered to the Niger Delta militants, leading to ceasefire and peace in the region, said people alleging such outright killings of suspects in police custody, “should be careful in making wild allegations.” According to him: “There may be one or two isolated cases, but to say SARS is killing suspects in custody is unfair and not true. Nobody should generalize such allegations. What’s the person proof? People need to be careful in making wild allegations. Officers have been sentenced for such crimes. Nobody has a license to kill. It can happen once in a while, but to generalize is bad. We have 13 zones, which SARS is the person or people talking about? If there is any such incident, the case should be investigated and if the policeman is found wanting, should be dealt with according to the law.”
A veteran crime reporter, Atta Folorusho, who had been covering the beat since 1989, said such killings were higher in 1989 and early 90s. He said that back then, such killings used to take place because most of the policemen were illiterates.
Force Headquarters reacts
Frank Mba is the spokesman for the Nigerian Police Force. When asked if there was anywhere in the Nigerian Police Act, where extra judicial killings of people in SARS cell/detention was permitted, Mba said he was genuinely shocked to hear such allegations. According to him, he was not aware that such killings or torture happen in any police command or stations in Nigeria.
He added: “I have never heard that and I’m not aware of such things happening. We, as members of the Nigeria Police Force are due process compliant. The Nigeria Police Force is a legitimate law abiding force. Even during operation, we don’t set out to kill robbers. We set out to arrest them, but during shootout, they get injured and might die from the wound. You can’t say we kill them. We also suffer casualties.
“The way robbers operate is outright murder. When they see policemen, they attack and kill policemen right away. We arrest them in the interest of the public. And when they suffer injury, we take them to hospital and give them the best of medical care. This sort of operation happens everywhere in the world, we’re not an exception.”
It’s illegal to kill suspects — PSC
A call was put to the Assistant Director, Information, of the Police Service Commission, Ferdinand Uche Akpe, to know if the commission had received complaints about SARS killing suspects in detention. Akpe had promised to get me the statistics by the next day.
The following day, however, he said he was in a meeting. After some days, I called him again, he said he had discussed the issue with the chairman of the Commission, a retired IGP, Sir Mike Okiro, who promised to speak with me after the Sallah break. Some days after the Sallah break, I got in touch with Akpe again, he said Okiro was not in town, but would alert me once Okiro was in town.
According to him, Okiro had not yet addressed the press since he assumed office as Chairman of PSC and as such was going to address the press, with extra judicial killings by police as one of the subject matters in his address.
On November, 28, 2013, Okiro came down to the Event Centre, Ikeja, Lagos State to attend a function organised by the Crime Reporters Association of Nigeria. When asked about what the PSC was doing about suspects disappearing from police cells, he replied: “If suspect disappears, maybe runs away, then the policeman on duty must account for such a suspect.”
But when told that Policemen kill some suspects, he said, “I don’t think any policeman would kill a suspect. In any case, we have human rights; we have a way of handling any policeman who does extra-judicial killing. Killing of suspects is against the law; I don’t think any policeman could do that. And if any policeman is found to do that, he would be dealt with, according to the law.”
Killing of suspects in police detention is believed to have been going on for ages, no thanks to lack of forensic/scientific method of carrying out investigations, greed and covetousness. Torture continues to be employed and deployed by detectives in anti-robbery department to get a confession from suspects. Torture had made so many innocent people to confess to crimes they did not commit or even know anything about. And many more had been tortured to death for a crime they also did not commit. Also, as long as the judiciary and Nigerians. Prisons Services are not playing their roles, these killings may very well not stop!
Femi Damilola, a lawyer, described the act as barbaric, adding that it was however an allegation which could not be substantiated. Damilola said: “It’s however against the constitution of the country. Nobody has the right to terminate the life of any person except through the process of the courts. Claiming that the judiciary is corrupt and that suspects charged to court are seen on the streets and often come after them is a lame excuse to cover their barbaric practices. When they say the judiciary is corrupt, are they saying the judiciary is collecting money from these suspects? The fact remains that there are laws and both judges and lawyers must act according to those laws.”
According to Damilola, there are conditions for bail. If the suspect meets those conditions, there was nothing the lawyers or judges could do after that. “That’s not the fault of the judiciary. That does not mean the judiciary is corrupt. We have the criminal laws already, but we’re not making use of those laws. There are laws against such killings.”
He explained that if any victim’s family could substantiate the allegation and drag the policeman involved to court, the likely sentence would be death or life imprisonment for the cop. He added: “If the police kill somebody and the person’s relation takes up the matter, that policeman must be killed also. The fact remains that we’re sitting on our rights. There’s also the problem of money. Even if you know your rights and there’s no money to pursue and prosecute the policeman, then that one reason is why the police will continue to do this and get away with it. Some of the policemen will claim that they caught the suspect with guns and the rest. Those are the lame excuses they use to give to continue this barbaric act. But those suspects who give them money would not be killed. They allow those suspects who can give them money to go. They’re talking of corruption in the judiciary, whereas corruption is in their blood!”
Another lawyer, Henry.O. Egorp, in a similar vein said the police don’t follow due process of the law. He explained that once a suspect was arrested, after 24 hours, the law provides that such a suspect should be arraigned in court, so that he could take his plea. Egorp said: “The police have no right whatsoever under the law to extra-judicially execute any suspect, whether he was alleged to have committed armed robbery or whatever. That the judiciary is corrupt according to them, does not give them the right to kill anyone. I don’t concede that the judiciary is corrupt anyway. The position of the law is that the suspect must be arraigned in the court of law.”