Death in Protective Custody

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There is urgent need to overhaul the country’s criminal justice and prison system

Nigeria is a signatory to the international protocols which prohibit the use of torture and other inhuman measures to extract confessions from detainees. Indeed, Nigerian laws consider such acts a taboo. But virtually all the security agencies in the country have turned their shadowy detention facilities into more or less death chambers, where suspects are treated to a cocktail of ordeals.

Gbenga Omolo, a 70-year-old man and a member of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), for instance, was allegedly tortured to death while being detained by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad of Ondo State Police Command. Omolo was reportedly beaten by police officers for several hours at the Oda Road SARS office and died in their custody. His real offence, according to members of his union who staged a protest, was having the effrontery to challenge a police officer in mufti for obstructing traffic.

Similarly, Samuel Chimezie Omeagwa a 400-level student of University of Agriculture, Makurdi, met his untimely death in weird circumstances last May. Omeagwa and his friend, Ekene, were whisked to Police Thunder Zone 4 Office, Old G.R.A, Makurdi after complaining of losing his phone at the place where he went to buy oranges. At the station, they were laid on the bare floor with “a flash-light” permanently fixed to their faces. Thereafter, there was a “systematic session” of torture led by an officer nicknamed “undertaker” perhaps for his brutality. By the time he was released to his parents the following day, Omeagwa had become incoherent. He was rushed to the Federal Medical Centre where he died on May 16, 2016.

Death from torture in facilities ran by security forces notably the police, the military, Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) and to even the National Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) is widespread. The mode of torture varies from one security agency to another and they range from suffocation, starvation to severe beatings with metallic or wooden objects, spraying of tear gas in the face or eyes while some are shot in the leg during interrogation and left to bleed to death.

Just recently, two suspects reportedly died in EFCC custody. A few months ago, a young man was also alleged to have been tortured to death by the Department of Security Service (DSS) at their Shangisha detention facility in Lagos. The Sokoto State Command of the NSCDC set up a committee recently to unravel the “mystery” behind the death of a 38-year-old suspect, Jamilu Abdullahi, while in its custody. It is common knowledge that the notorious trans-border convicted armed robber, Ahmani Tijani, died in Kirikiri Maximum Security Prisons last year.

To say that the criminal justice administration in Nigeria needs reform is to state the obvious. In particular, armed robbery and kidnap suspects are arrested and paraded at crowded press conferences addressed by police commissioners. After the “media trial”, there were reports that some of these suspects were extra-judicially executed and secretly buried in mass graves. Such suspects are usually reported to have died during shoot-out with the police anti-robbery squads or while attempting to escape from custody. But the unofficial justification is usually that if the suspects were charged to court they may be released and then turn round to kill the police personnel who arrested them!

Some of the deaths are, however, due to overcrowding, prolonged pre-trial detention and inadequate medical attention. But our laws are clear on issue of deaths in custody. They require thorough investigation. We insist that from now on, the result of such investigations, in form of autopsies, must be placed in the public domain. In addition, government should take concrete steps to overhaul the country’s criminal justice and prison system. It is time to ensure that persons taken into custody do not necessarily come out in bodybags.

QUOTE: Our laws are clear on issue of deaths in custody. They require thorough investigation. We insist that from now on, the result of such investigations, in form of autopsies, must be placed in the public domain