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Mass arrest of looters threatens prison decongestion policy

By Joseph Onyekwere
29 October 2020   |   4:33 am
Mass arrest and detention of suspected COVID-19 palliative looters across states of the Federation threatens Federal Government’s plan to decongest correctional facilities’ detention centres.

People run from a tear gas shot by Nigerian police officers during a mass looting of a warehouse that have COVID-19 food palliatives that were not given during lockdown to relieve people of hunger, in Abuja, Nigeria, on October 26, 2020. Kola Sulaimon / AFP

• Ex-NBA boss offers free legal service to suspected looters
• ‘I foresee clash between jurisprudence and state responsibility’
• Mass detention raises fear of COVID-19 spike

Mass arrest and detention of suspected COVID-19 palliative looters across states of the Federation threatens Federal Government’s plan to decongest correctional facilities’ detention centres.

The country also stands the risk of a spike and rebound of the dreaded COVID-19 pandemic, following violation of social distancing protocols by citizens.

The Federal Ministry of Justice, in partnership with the Ministry of Interior and the Presidential Committee on Correctional Service Reform and Decongestion (PCCSRD), had embarked on a nationwide decongestion exercise shortly after the outbreak of COVID-19 to stifle the spread of the virus in the various correctional centres across the 36 states and the FCT.

According to the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN), about 3,751 former inmates, mostly adults, were released during the said exercise, which is not only classified as a mitigation measure for the pandemic but a fundamental contribution to the ongoing justice sector reform by the ministry.

The decongestion, Malami had said, was one of the steps by his ministry towards implementing the Federal Executive Council’s mandate to decongest Correctional Centres and reform the justice sector.

During a recent virtual session on implementing Amnesty and Decongestion for Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, Malami had announced that leveraging the achievements recorded during the said exercise, the ministry articulated plans for the second phase of the nationwide custodial decongestion.

The focus, he noted, would be on implementing amnesty and decongestion for juveniles deprived of their liberty during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond through the collaborative efforts of the state attorneys-general, heads of courts in the 36 states and the FCT, the Ministry of Women Affairs, the Nigerian Correctional Service, Non-Government Organisations, like the United Nations Children’s Funds (UNICEF), as well as other critical justice sector stakeholders.

But all those gains and plans are now endangered following the recent uprising that culminated in the alleged looting of COVID-19 warehouses in some states and the subsequent mass arrest, which would end up congesting detention centres again.

ON the likely spike in COVID-19 cases, a former chairman of the NBA, Ikorodu branch, Mr. Bayo Akinlade, said: “I am uncomfortable with the mass arrest of suspected looters and the subsequent remand order granted by the Judiciary at the request of the office of the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP).

“First and foremost are these suspects going to be kept in the correctional facilities or in police cells? Whichever way, it seems they (the government) are insensitive to the COVID-19 regulations just to prove a point or to punish some people for looting.”

He also expressed concern that out of those arrested, some may be innocent of the crime they were remanded for.

He wondered if the innocent among them would be compensated if discovered to be innocent? He accused the government of reacting instead of being proactive.

“Those who looted our treasury are roaming the streets free, while those who are suspected of looting items as little as a printer or COVID-19 palliatives are now to spend days in prison detention and you say they shouldn’t protest,” he added.

Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, executive director, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC) kicked against the mass arrest, sayings his group had been calling on government at federal and state levels to ensure that various prisons in the country were decongested because of health implications.

“Given the COVID-19 health implications we advocated that the government must ensure speedy trial and those who have been there for several years without trial with less offences should be allowed to go or engage them in community service, rather than keeping them to become hardened criminals,” he said.

Condemning the mass arrest, which, he said, would likely worsen the condition of detention facilities, Rafsanjani said government should ensure that it carries out prison reform to avoid more people being infected by the COVID-19 and to let go the idea of clamping down on palliative looters.

LAGOS State Police Command had, on Tuesday, declared that it had arrested over 200 suspects for their involvement in looting.

Mr. Hakeem Odumosu, who is the Lagos Commissioner of Police, paraded the suspects and the items recovered from them on Tuesday at the Police Headquarters in Ikeja.

Besides Lagos, some state governors had also called on residents to return the looted items to the warehouses or risk arrest and prosecution.

Governor Ahmadu Fintiri of Adamawa State had vowed to arrest and try perpetrators for looting. He made the threat in Yola and urged security agencies to carry out the instruction.

Also, Kaduna State Governor, Nasir El-rufai, had ordered security agencies to conduct house-to-house search for looted palliatives.

In his verified twitter handle, he maintained that those involved must be arrested and prosecuted.
“We intend to bring each and everyone of them to justice. Stealing and destruction of property in the guise of #EndSARS will not be tolerated in Kaduna State,” he insisted.

Similarly, Governor Ben Ayade of Cross River, stunned by the wild looting by hungry and angry residents, ordered a house-to-house search to retrieve the loot.

The governor, who pledged to arrest suspects, gave the police the tasks in a statement issued on Sunday in Calabar by Mr. Christian Ita, his Special Adviser, Media and Publicity.

In Osun State, the Governor, Gbeyega Oyetola, ordered residents that took part in the looting to return removed items or face the full wrath of the law. He also directed house-to-house search for the palliatives.

He tweeted: “This afternoon, I inspected looted items that have been recovered so far. I urge persons still in possession of stolen items to return them within the amnesty period, which expires in 24 hours. Those who refuse to return looted items won’t be spared; they’ll be tracked and prosecuted.”

A FORMER second vice president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Monday Ubani, decried the development.

Not only has he condemned the arrests, he has offered to give free legal defence to persons, who took away COVID-19 palliatives as a result of hunger and urged them to reach out to him.

“After careful prayer and leading of the spirit, I hereby offer free legal services to any Nigerian who is arrested for taking any of the palliatives from the warehouses in the states as a result of hunger. Contact me,” he said.

Reacting to the development, human rights lawyer, Toluwani Adebiyi, who said there was nothing wrong in apprehending and prosecuting suspected criminals, however added that arresting citizens for helping themselves with stored palliatives was shameful.

He said: “It is a shame for any governor/government to give such threats. These are palliatives meant for the poor people, but they kept them without anyone’s knowledge, while the poor are dying of hunger. Could they be hoarding it for personal gains? How many people received palliatives from the government?

“I have about three estates surrounding the estate where I reside, no presence of government distributing any palliative in any of the four estates was felt, even up till now, yet the same government could send agents to each house to identify those afflicted with COVID-19 pandemic. This government has failed by keeping such things, yet people are dying of hunger.”

According to him, no excuse is tenable for hoarding the palliatives. No one, he said, could ever imagine there were still palliatives anywhere, adding that such essential commodities were meant to be distributed and not stored.

Adebiyi stated it was the highest level of insensitivity to human plights and the highest crime against humanity.

However, the immediate past president of the Campaign for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR), Mr. Malachy Ugwummadu, said the general principle that ignorance is no excuse in law should apply. In other words, no one, he said, should be excused or protected from the wrath of the law on the ground that he or she lacked knowledge that his or her action constituted a criminal offence.

“Certainly, there are multiple offences, including stealing under Section 280 and burglary under Section 306 of the Criminal Law of Lagos State 2015 etcetera.

“ However, if they carry out their threats and eventually arraign them for the offence of stealing, for instance, the state will necessarily cross the entire hurdle of establishing all the ingredients of stealing, including, of course, that the items or materials alleged to be stolen belonged to or were owned by the state or other persons other than the present suspects.”

He said the burden must be discharged by the prosecutor pursuant to Section 132 of the Evidence Act 2011 and, in this case, beyond every reasonable doubt. “This is likely going to pose an interesting challenge because there is a sense of entitlement and ownership on the part of the suspects over the palliatives they got,” he argued.

To this end, Ugwummadu said he could foresee a robust clash between jurisprudence of the law as it is and the responsibility of the state to its citizens.