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Pre-trial parade of suspects may pitch Lagos against police

By Gbenga Salau
18 July 2021   |   3:17 am
Basically, the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) is saddled with the constitutional duty of protecting the lives and property of Nigerians; crime detection and prevention; arrest of offenders, as well as the preservation of order in the society.

Parade of suspects by the police

Basically, the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) is saddled with the constitutional duty of protecting the lives and property of Nigerians; crime detection and prevention; arrest of offenders, as well as the preservation of order in the society.

But for far too long, the agency has immensely contributed to the incalculable harm that the pre-trial parade of crime suspects has done to those involved, especially jeopardising citizen’s legal rights.

Also, contrary to established conventions, statements of suspects are obtained/recorded in the absence of their legal representative thereby failing to protect the liberty and privacy of criminal suspects as stipulated by laws of the land.

Section 36 (5) of the 1999 Constitution, makes provision for the presumption of innocence of any person that is charged with a criminal offence, until proven guilty.

The Africa Charter on Human and Peoples Right, on its part, also guarantees a suspect’s right fair trial, even as the Administration of Criminal Justice Law (ACJL), 2015 provided certain conditions that must be established by investigating security agencies in the course of handling such cases.

That the pre-trial parade of suspects has become a norm in the country, and perpetrated by no less an agency than the NPF, as well as the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) etc., has become such a worrisome scenario frowned at by many stakeholders including, human right activists.

It was these hues and cries and the fact that antics of the NPF may deny or undermine the fair trial of suspects that got the Lagos State House of Assembly to recently pass a bill to stop the obnoxious act in the state.

So, it was not surprising that the Assembly passed an amended version of the Criminal Justice Law in the state barring the Police from parading suspects before the media.

While applauding the Lagos Assembly for passing the bill, human rights activist, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN), urged Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu, to speedily assent to the document.

In a statement, he singled out Section 9(a) of the newly passed bill, which states that, “as from the commencement of this law, the police shall refrain from parading any suspect before the media,” for commendation.

The bill, according to him, has adopted the provisions of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015 on the humane treatment of criminal suspects, and has also outlawed the discriminatory and illegal parade of criminal suspects by law enforcement officers in the state.

He said the practice of parading suspects was illegal, as it constitutes a gross violation of the fundamental rights of criminal suspects to presumption of innocence as guaranteed by Section 36 of the Constitution and Article 7 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act (Cap A9, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004.

Falana also noted that the act of parading suspects was equally discriminatory as only lowly-placed criminal suspects were exposed to media parades by the police and other law enforcement agencies.

“For instance, while poor suspects are paraded for allegedly stealing tubers of yam or mobile telephone handsets valued at N10, 000 or less, politically exposed persons accused of looting the public treasury to the tune of N10 billion or more are never paraded before the media,” Falana stressed.

According to him, even though incriminating statements procured from criminal suspects during media parade were not admissible during trial in criminal courts, they were used by law enforcement agencies to compel members of the public to participate in mob justice.

The SAN stated that they were also used to blackmail judges to convict criminal suspects with, or without evidence adduced by the prosecution.

“But for the culture of impunity which permeates the entire society, the illegal policy would have been stopped as the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States, and Nigerian courts have repeatedly condemned the media parade of criminal suspects by the police, and other law enforcement agencies.

“It was indisputable that the bill was in line with the terms of the judgments of regional and municipal courts,” the human rights activist wrote, while also urging the state governor to assent to the bill without delay.

“In view of the clear and unambiguous provisions of the constitution and the African Charter, and having regard to the aforementioned judicial authorities, we are compelled to urge the Governor of Lagos State, Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu to assent to the bill without any delay.”

The Executive Director, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), Adetokunbo Mumuni, however, disagrees with Falana, saying that such parade does not constitute a violation of their rights.

“Nigerians should learn to know that our law says that if a person is accused of a crime, until he is proven guilty, he is not a criminal,” the SERAP boss said, adding that the media is entitled to cover any news and doing so does not constitute what is being touted media trial as the same practice is also carried out in saner environments.

“It is not possible to say that the media should not be there, the media needs to inform Nigerians,” Mumuni, said, adding that the state government would have issues implementing the law.

“There is going to be a problem of enforcement of the law,” he said, adding that, “ we know that the Police Act pursuant to which Police can make regulations to govern its activities is a federal law. It is very odd that a state would make a law to govern police activities. Only a federal law can effectively be made in that respect, that is the first problem that I see with the law. If the Lagos State government wants to make a law, it must be a law that would be within its constituted authority. I do not see how this law by the state House of Assembly will be effectively implemented.”

For the Executive Director, International Press Centre (IPC), Mr. Lanre Arogundade, the pre-trial parade of suspected criminals a practice that the media should have not accepted in the first place, because of the dangerous implications, including the fact that it is a form of extra judicial trial.

“If suspects would still have their day in court why subject them to interrogation by the media? In a way, the act could be interpreted as obstruction of justice. In any case, I do not think such pre-trial confessions are admissible court evidence.”

He added that another danger is that such parades present the suspects as having been found guilty, meaning that it could lead to prejudice against them, yet, a suspect is supposed to be presumed innocent, until he or she is found guilty by the law court. 

“So, with this background, the media ought not to have been part of the charade and travesty of justice. The media should desist from the act, and it should communicate the decision to the police hierarchy. It just has to stop. This is a matter that the media professional bodies and associations should give serious considerations to. If the media decide not to participate any longer, the whole thing would stop.”

Arogundade who is not against briefing the media of breakthroughs that the police have made in criminal investigation, pointed out that parading suspects and subjecting them to media questioning should stop.

On his part, the Chairman of Centre for Anti-​corruption and Open Leadership (CACOL), Debo Adeniran, also said Lagos State does not have the capacity to legislate on issues concerning the Nigeria Police Force, as it ought to be in the exclusive list for now.

“They may only implement those laws that they have authority over within the state. It is just like when you are talking about Freedom of Information Act, the Fashola administration said it is not applicable in Lagos, because they have not domesticated it. So, I am not sure they have that right to make such a law.

“Personally, I think what led to the parade of suspects is as a result of public demand. It was not so rampant in the last decade as it is currently. And that is why the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), and law enforcement agencies do it. What I believe they can do, because the Police also want to convince the public that it is working, is to parade them without showing their faces.”

Adeniran noted that if the police fail to parade these suspects, the media will not allow the agency to rest, especially if the police do not give the media access to identify those that have been arrested and working on.

“As a matter of fact, if the police do not do a deliberate parade because crime reporters are around the police stations, they will always cover such things. So, I believe that the issue is neither here, nor there because the public also has a right to know. The police should not only announce that they have arrested a number of people, they should show us evidence of the arrest by showing the suspects and sounding them out. They do not necessarily have to reveal the suspect’s faces.”

Adeniran, who said the parade of suspects in the first world is not the norm because there is no pressure on the law enforcement agencies to convince the populace that they are doing their job creditably.

“Here, people do not tend to believe whatever any government agency says unless they see evidence. When they see evidence, they would describe those that are unlucky to be paraded as small fries, and not the real criminals. This is what you get when there is mutual distrust between the government and the people. This level of frustration could have forced security/law enforcement agencies to parade suspects. Of course, it is not the right thing to do because suspects must be presumed innocent until otherwise proven.

The farthest that these agencies can go should be to conceal the faces of the suspects. We need to be convinced that they are actually doing the work that they claim doing.”

Also speaking on the issue, the Executive Director, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, said parading of suspects by the police has been criticised as a form of public humiliation, especially if the suspect go ahead to prove their innocence.

Rafsanjani who recalled that often times the police claim that the parade of suspects is meant to promote transparency, deplored a situation where Nigerians’ rights to privacy and presumption of innocence until proven guilty is thoroughly abused by law enforcement agencies. He advised aggrieved or affected persons to seek redress, but they can pursue legal redress for that.”

“In America, law enforcement agencies usually take an arrested suspect through a public place, creating an opportunity for the media to take photograph and video the event. The defendant is handcuffed or otherwise restrained and sometimes dressed in prison uniform. This practice is called perp walk and it is most closely associated with New York City. It arose incidentally from the need to transport a defendant from police station to court after arrest. This practice has also been widely criticised by the public.”

According to the CISLAC boss, despite the provision of the ACJL 2015 that statements of suspects must be recorded in the presence of a legal representative, law enforcement agencies, especially the Nigerian Police Force has continued to parade suspects, portraying them as convicted criminals even when investigations are yet to be concluded.

“The media need to be very careful, and to take into cognizance, the provision of the law when reporting criminal cases, especially one in which suspects are being paraded even before investigations, or trials have been concluded and the person proven guilty of the crime.

“The media should be mindful of publishing the names and pictures of such individuals, because it is a violation of their human rights, and they are at liberty to take legal action if after everything they are proven innocent by a court of law. The media in its bid to get exclusive stories should recognise, and exercise respect for the fundamental human rights of suspects.”

Attempts to get the Lagos State House of Assembly to respond to issues raised by stakeholders were not successful, as the Chairman, House Committee on Information, David Setonji did not pick calls made to his mobile line. He also did not respond to text message to his line.

When the Chief Press Secretary to the Speaker of the Assembly was contacted, he declined commenting saying it was the Chairman, House Committee on Information, or the House Majority Leader that were better placed to speak on the issue, but the majority leader mobile phone was off when he was called.