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FG tasks magistrates on prison oversight

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The federal government has tasked magistrates across the country to conduct periodic oversight of prisons within their domains.The aim was to uncover cases of human rights violations that might be taking place in various detention centres across the country.

The directive was given last week by the Federal Justice Sector Reform Coordinating Committee at the opening of a two-day sensitization workshop for the South East Geo-political zone, on the implementation of sections 29, 33 and 34 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA), 2015.

The Solicitor General of the Federation and Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Justice, Mr. Dayo Apata (SAN), who is the chairman of the committee, noted that it has become imperative for magistrates to conduct the oversight on detention centres as a way of addressing prison congestion and cases of abuse allegedly taking place in detention centres.

The committee noted that the magistrate can order the release of inmates that have been detained longer than necessary without trial, and when the offense falls within their jurisdiction, ensure that such accused persons are brought to court immediately for trial.

While applauding the committee for intervening in the situation, they however expressed fears that assigning such additional responsibility on magistrates might pose serious challenge on their already overloaded court duties.

In that circumstance, they solicited that the Ministry of Justice of each state, delegate judicial officers other than the magistrates to handle such oversight.  The workshop, which was equally attended by lawyers and officials of various security agencies including the police, prisons officials, Civil Defense and officials of the Department of State Security Service (DSS), aimed at reforming the criminal justice administration and promote the rule of law.

The exercise was the aftermath of validation and adoption of the report of 2018 workshop, which saw the need to train those saddled with the responsibility of implementing the ACJA.

The provisions of the identified sections were also explained to the participants at the workshop.According to the SGF, section 29(1) of the Act provides a mechanism for interface between the Inspector General of Police and the Attorney General of the Federation on one hand and between the Commissioner of Police and the Attorney General of the State on the other hand.He said: “The section requires the Inspector General of Police to remit quarterly to the Attorney General of the Federation, a record of all arrests made with or without warrant in relation to federal offences within Nigeria.”

Meanwhile, Section 29(2) of the Act requires the Commissioner of Police of a State or head of agency authorized to make arrest to remit quarterly to the Attorney General of the State, records of arrest with respect to state offences.Also, section 33 of the Act stipulates that an officer in charge of a police station or an officer in charge of an agency authorized to make arrests, on the last working day of every month, report to the Magistrate, the cases of all suspects arrested without warrant within the limits of their respective stations or agency whether the suspects have been admitted to bail or not.

“Section 34 of the Act requires a chief Magistrate or a Magistrate designated by the Chief Judge of the State to conduct an inspection of police stations or other places of detention within his territorial jurisdiction other than the prison.

“The above provision also requires the Chief Magistrate to submit the report from the officer in charge of a police station to the criminal Justice Monitoring Committee who is expected to analyze the reports and advice the Attorney General accordingly,’’ he said.However, he decried the fact that the Act made no provisions for the templates or protocols for generating and submitting such reports.

For the oversight, the SGF noted that the law empowers the Magistrate in the course of the visit to call for, and inspect the records of arrest of the police station or detention facility.

“The magistrate also has the right to direct the police station on the arraignment of suspects, advice on bail and grant bail where necessary.”According to him, they are to work towards improving public perception of security agencies and compliant with ACJA provisions as well as promote accountability and transparency in criminal justice administration.

The workshop started in June with the South-South Geo-political zone and it aimed at ensuring reforms in the justice system to enable it play its role in nation development.For the Secretary, Justice Reform Sector Coordinating Committee, Mr. Felix Ota-Okojie, the workshop was also to ensure collaboration between security agencies and the judiciary.

These are provisions that are meant to drive the promotion and protection of human rights. That is why the emphases are on the selected provisions of the ACJA.”Ota-Okojie believed that the “workshop will lead to decongestion of prisons because as magistrates visit these facilities and the laws empower them bail to deserved persons, the police are put on their toes to ensure that those they kept in their custody and the ones deserving to be there and not just the practice of packing and leaving people there.

“We are teaching participants, particularly magistrates what to do by sharing with them, arrest protocols that have been nationally adopted. We are also teaching them how they can apply the templates to collect information they are expected to share.”

The Secretary added that the forum was the beginning of the process of implementing the said ACJA provisions.
“Before now, these things are left in the hands of security agencies but now that the magistrates have been schooled and the instrument of oversight provided, it is our expectation that the visit to prisons will continue.

To ensure compliance, we have put in place, justice sector reform team to look at issue affecting justice reform in each state. The team will ensure that magistrates go out on oversight”, he said.The Imo State governor, Emeka Ihedioha, who was represented by his deputy, stated that effective justice delivery is of common good to the nation.

He regretted the state of the entire criminal justice system prior to 1999 was deplorable, which may be prompted the 2004 justice reform initiative.“The workshop undoubtedly presents a good opportunity to join forces with those who have demonstrated passion for effective justice delivery in Nigeria, give an opportunity to learn more about the administration of criminal justice system and discuss the critical problems faced with the implementation of ACJA 2015”, he said.


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