By Femi Falana, SAN
On February 26 this year, the police conducted a media trial and parade of the detained 49 members of the Peace Corps of Nigeria. In condemning the uncouth action of the Police I pointed out that “the parade of criminal suspects by the Police in the country is illegal and unconstitutional.” Shortly thereafter, there was a violent clash between the Yoruba and Hausa communities in Ile Ife, Osun State. The 20 suspects arrested by the police were paraded before the media in Abuja last week. Since the suspects are of Yoruba extraction the Afenifere has condemned the selective arrest by the police.
Although the courts have repeatedly cautioned the law enforcement agencies to desist from parading criminal suspects before the media the Inspector-General of Police, Mr. Ibrahim Idris has justified the illegal practice. It was a defence which smacks of official impunity and insensitivity. Notwithstanding that such media parade is prejudicial to the fundamental right of criminal suspects to fair hearing the ruling class has not stopped it because it is part of the humiliation of lowly placed citizens. Hence, while it is not unusual to parade poor criminal suspects who are accused of stealing handsets whose value is less than N10,000 it is infra dignitate to parade rich and powerful criminal suspects who loot the treasury to the tune of several billions of Naira. However, in view of the controversy arising from the media parade of the 20 murder suspects in Abuja last week it has become necessary to examine the legal implications of the practice.
Right of suspects to presumption of innocence
When the EFCC made the first arrest of some 419 kingpins in 2002 it was reported that they were going to be paraded in line with the usual but highly prejudicial practice of the Police. I immediately drew the attention of the then EFCC boss, Mr. Nuhu Ribadu to a judgment of the Lagos High Court on the illegality of the exercise. The move was shelved and since then the EFCC has not indulged in the parade of suspects in press conferences before arraignment in Court. But all efforts of the human rights community to prevail on other law enforcement agencies to stop the parade and media trial of criminal suspects have failed.
In spite of the presumption of innocence which inures in favour of criminal suspects by virtue of Section 36 of the Constitution and Article 7 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights Act the Nigeria Police Force and other law enforcement agencies in Nigeria have continued to expose accused persons to media trial before arraigning them in courts. Thus, the practice of subjecting suspects to media trial and parade before arraignment in a criminal court is an infringement of their fundamental rights to fair hearing and dignity. To compound the human rights abuse, the suspects are subjected to “cross examination” by law enforcement officials at crowded press conferences.
As if that is not enough, media personnel are given the liberty to interview and interrogate the suspects with a view to confirming their involvement in the criminal offences alleged against them. In the process, the suspects are compelled to make incriminating statements which are prejudicial in every material particular. However, since ours is a class society such humiliating treatment of criminal suspects is limited to the flotsam and the jetsam. Hence, ex-governors, ministers, permanent secretaries, military and other Very Important Personalities who are arrested and briefly detained by the police and the anti-graft agencies are not exposed to media parade or any form of humiliation. On a few occasions that important personalities have been exposed to public odium by law enforcement officials the neo-colonial state has paid dearly for it.
Media parade of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti in handcuffs
On January 14, 1997, the late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was arrested by officials of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency for being in possession of alleged narcotic substances. Convinced that the agency had caught a big fish the then chairman of the NDLEA, the late Major-General Musa Bamaiyi addressed a press conference wherein he paraded Fela in handcuffs. After the media parade the famous musician slammed a N100 million suit against the NDLEA for violating his fundamental rights to fair hearing, personal liberty and human dignity. As Fela’s parade in handcuffs could not be justified in law the federal high court ordered his unconditional release from further detention.
Before the suspect’s arraignment at the Miscellaneous Offences Tribunal he had characteristically played a fast one on the NDLEA. At the end of his marathon interrogation he signed the charge sheet but cleverly added “in chains”. In opposing the Fela’s application for bail at the Tribunal the NDLEA counsel referred the trial judge to his “written confessional statement”. In my short submission on behalf of the defendant I urged the court to discountenance the statement as it was obtained |in chains” or under duress. Having publicly paraded the suspect in handcuffs the prosecutor could not challenge my submission.
As the charge could not be proved on the basis of a discredited “confessional statement” the NDLEA was compelled to approach the defence for an amicable resolution of the criminal case. To the embarrassment of the military junta, the NDLEA offered to discontinue the criminal charge and pleaded with Fela to withdraw his civil suit pending at the federal high court. When I asked Fela if the proposal was acceptable to him he said, “Na good deal as Bamaiyi don beg me”. As soon as Fela’s decision was communicated to the NDLEA the charge was withdrawn and struck out by the Tribunal. Thereafter, Fela’s civil case was equally withdrawn. Notwithstanding the incident the NDLEA and other law enforcement agencies have continued to engage in the media trial and parade of criminal suspects.
Judicial condemnation of media parade of criminal suspects
In several decisions the courts have repeatedly condemned the illegal practice of parading criminal suspects. In Ndukwem Chiziri Nice v. AG, Federation & Anor. (2007) CHR 218 at 232 Justice Banjoko held that “The act of parading him (the suspect) before the press as evidenced by the Exhibits annexed to the affidavit was uncalled for and a callous disregard for his person. He was shown up to the public the next day of his arrest even without any investigation conducted in the matter. He was already prejudged by the police who are incompetent, so to have such function, it is the duty of the court to pass a verdict of guilt and this constitutes a clear breach of section 36(4) and (5) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 on the doctrine of fair hearing.”
Similarly, in Dyot Bayi & 14 Ors. V. Federal Republic of Nigeria (2004-2009) CCJLER 245 at 265 the Community Court of Justice, ECOWAS Court condemned the media trial of the Applicants when it held that: “The Court is of the opinion that for the fact that the Defendants presented the Applicants before the press when no judge or court has found them guilty, certainly constitute a violation of the principle of presumption of innocence such as provided in Article 7(b) of the same African Charter and not a violation in the sense of Article 5 of the said Charter.” The Court proceeded to award damages of US$42,750.00 to each of the 10 Applicants and the US$10,000.00 as costs payable by the Federal Government for the illegal actions of the naval personnel who carried out the illegal parade of the applicants.
However, the parade of criminal suspects was carried to a ridiculous extent during the shoddy investigation of the barbaric assassination of Olaitan Oyerinde, former Principal Secretary of the erstwhile governor of Edo State, Comrade Adams Oshiommole which occurred in Benin on January 24, 2013. While the Edo State police command paraded the alleged assassins including a human rights activist in Benin the State Security Service paraded the alleged armed robbers who killed the deceased in Abuja. A former Chief Judge of the Federal Capital Territory, Justice Lawal Gunmi described the shameful episode as “a bewildering case of one murder, two government agencies and two different culprits. The police and the State Security Service, the two security agencies investigating the murder, paraded two different sets of suspects, a development that has set off speculation that the investigation into the murder was most likely bungled.”
Extra judicial execution of suspects after media parade
After the media parade and trial of armed robbery and kidnap suspects they are extra-judicially killed by unauthorized executioners under the pretext that they are trying to escape from police custody. Among the several cases recently handled by our law office on the illegal parade of criminal suspects two of them stand out on account of the degree of bestial brutality displayed by the police. In Isaac Edoh v. Edo State Commissioner of Police, (Unreported Suit No:B/460m/2011) the applicant’s son who was an undergraduate of the Othman Dan Fodio University was arrested by the police and paraded before the media in Benin, Edo State where he was accused of involvement in kidnapping. When the applicant, a senior customs’ officer visited the police station to secure his bail the police denied ever arresting his son.
In his reaction to the denial by the police the applicant filed a suit at the High Court, Edo State. In the suit the applicant challenged the illegal killing of his son and sought damages of N100 million. As the police maintained that the applicant’s son was never arrested we summoned the Channels Television to produce the video tape of the press conference where the deceased was paraded. When the tape was produced and played in the court the applicant identified his son. At that stage the shallow defence of the Police collapsed like a pack of cards. Upon coming to the conclusion that the applicant’s son must have been killed extra judicially in custody the court declared the killing illegal and awarded the sum of N15 million damages to the applicant.
In Mr. Abudu v. Nigeria Police Force (unreported Suit No: M/13/2011) the applicant, an electrician, alleged that his wife, who was a factory worker at Sagamu, Ogun State was shot dead by the police on December 12, 2008. In justifying the killing the police claimed that the deceased was the head of a robbery gang that had robbed the Sagamu Branch of the First Bank Plc. Her corpse which was decked with charms and a pistol by the police was paraded before the media. In rejecting the misleading evidence of the police the trial judge condemned the iniquitous killing of the deceased and the parade of the corpse. The court proceeded to award the sum of N5 million as reparation to the Applicant.
Apart from violating the fundamental right of criminal suspects to fair hearing the federal government has had to pay huge monetary damages to victims of media parade and trial conducted from time to time by law enforcement agencies in the country. To stop the illegal practice we are compelled to call on the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami SAN to order the arrest and prosecution of law enforcement personnel who engage in the media parade, trial and extrajudicial killing of criminal suspects in custody.
Since the report of the media trial and parade of criminal suspects including the publication of their photographs is libelous in every material particular the publishers and owners of media organizations are advised to stop colluding with law enforcement personnel in the crude violation of human rights. In view of the constitutional protection of the fundamental right of all citizens to presumption of innocence we call on any criminal suspect who is paraded by any law enforcement body to seek redress in a court of law. In this regard, the detained members of the Peace Corps of Nigeria and the Ile Ife 20 who have been paraded by the Police Authorities are advised to sue the federal government in the federal high court for aggravated and exemplary damages.