By Innocent Anaba

A civil rights organisation, Legal Defence and Assistance Project, LEDAP, has written all states of the federation and their respective ministry of Justice and Attorney General to stop indiscriminate arrests and detention to decongest custody centres to help stop the spread of the coronavirus in the country.

LEDAP’s National Coordinator, Chino Obiagwu(SAN), and Programmes Director, Pamela Okoroigwe in a statement, said: “We commend the efforts of your respective states in tackling the spread of coronavirus in your states.

“We wish to draw your attention to the vulnerable situation of places of detention including prisons, police stations, and detention cells of environmental sanitation agency, Covid19 Task Force, Civil defence corps, vigilante services, etc.

“These places are reportedly filled with criminal suspects and are grossly over-congested.

“Many over-zealous law enforcement officials have relied on the COVID19 lockdown to harass citizens, extort money from them, indiscriminately arrest and detain suspects and charge money for their bail.

“It is commonplace that securing bail in police and other agencies costs a lot of  money, sometime between N10,000 and N50,000 for simple offences and much more for felonies, yet the police authorities continue to tell Nigerians that bail is free.

“We draw your attention, sir, as the Chief Law Officers of your state that this state of affairs should not continue under your watch.”

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The LEDAP leader continued: “We, therefore, request you, as a matter of urgency, to take the following measures: Issue further Directives or Regulations on managing and handling criminal matters during Covid19 lockdown in order to ensure that no arrested person is unduly kept in detention, and where such detention occurs, that bail is granted free of charge as soon as any surety whatsoever is presented.

“Direct that no one should be arrested and detained on account of violating the lockdown. Most Nigerians live on daily earnings, and therefore the lockdown regulations and their enforcement must be carried out with a human face, recognizing the constitutional rights of citizens.

“Liaise with the Chief Judge of your states to call out all the Magistrates in the states to perform their statutory functions under section 34 of Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015, which provides that ‘(1) The Chief Magistrate, or where there is no Chief Magistrate within the police division, any Magistrate designated by the Chief Judge for that purpose, shall at least every month conduct an inspection of police stations or other places of detention within the territorial jurisdiction other than the prison.

“(2) During a visit, the Magistrate may: (a)  call for, and inspect the record of arrests,(b)  direct the arraignment of the suspect, (c)   where bail has been refused, to grant bail to any suspect where appropriate if the offence for which the suspect is held is within the jurisdiction of the Magistrate.

“We further want to inform you, sir, that in our separate open letter to the Chief Judges of the States and FCT, we have encouraged their Lordships to designate one Judge in each divisional division and one Magistrate in each magisterial district, to handle all urgent criminal matters during the Covid-19 lockdown.

“You will agree with us that it will raise chaos and anarchy in your State if all the courts and ministry of justice are closed down during all period of the lock down as deserving victims will be denied access to justice and many may take the laws into their hands.

“Thus, your office and the judiciary should provide a window for access to justice during this period.

“It is important that all arrested persons should be immediately arraigned in the courts, and the courts should refrain from imposing custodial sentences for non-felony offences, and should rather order for non-custodial sanction as provided in section 453 – 468 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015 or the equivalent provision in the ACJ Laws of your state.

“Finally, we note that as experts have continue to warn of the imminent huge landfall of Covid19 in our dear country within coming weeks, the spread of the disease in the custody centres and detention places will invariably be extended to the general public, and therefore, it is important that you pay close attention to these places of detention at this trying time,” the LEDAP Coordinator added.

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