Emmanuel Ugwu in Umuahia
Abia State Police Command has classified praying as terrorist act and has even charged nine adherents of Judaism faith for praying at the deserted home of the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), Nnamdi Kanu, at Afaraukwu, Umuahia.
The Jews were said to have gone to the palace of Eze Israel Kanu, last Sunday to pray and clean the abode of the royal father which was stormed by soldiers on September 14, 2017, during which many casualties were recorded among IPOB members.
But the police truncated the prayer session and religious rites of cleansing the palace as they swooped on the worshippers and arrested over 20 persons including women and children.
After releasing the women and children, the police decided to charge nine men with terrorism offences and sought to prosecute them under the Abia State law on terrorism. Instead of taking the â€˜suspectsâ€™ straight to a high court, the police prosecutor arraigned them before a magistrate court which lacked jurisdiction to try such cases.
The one count charge reads: â€œThat you … and others now at large, on or about the 13th of May, 2018, at Afaraukwu, Umuahia in Umuahia North Magistrate district in the course of carrying out your terrorist act, and with intent to frighten ASP Justus Ogar of the Nigerian Police, Abia command and his team, and thereby committed an offense punishable under section 12 (a) of the Abia State prohibition of terrorism , kidnapping , hostage taking, use of offensive weapons or explosives and other threatening behaviour law 2009â€.
The said law has no provision for classifying praying as a terrorism act but the Abia Police has other ideas even when no amendment has been effected to include religious worship as an act of terrorism.
One of the counsel to the â€˜accused terrorists,â€™ Mr. Godwin Chionye, told the presiding magistrate, U.O. Egwu, that the terrorism charge was outlandish as the action of the accused did not in any way amount to terrorism.
Chionye, who said he hails from Afaraukwu explained that contrary to the police claims, the accused persons were only at Kanuâ€™s house for religious purpose and not to commit terrorism.
He said: â€œYour Worship, I am incidentally from the Afaraukwu where the accused came to pray at the house of His Royal Highness, Eze Israel Kanu, which is very close to my house. The worshippers were not disturbing anybody but only praying.
â€œWhy will you call them terrorists? If they were destroying anything the villagers would have complained. It is a mark of wickedness for the police to arrest and put them in detention just because they are Jewish worshippers. They were wearing their white garments and praying, and you can be sure that no person wears white garment to commit terrorism.â€
The second counsel to the accused persons, Mr. Aloy Ejimakor, corroborated Chionyeâ€™s assertion. He said if the accused persons had indeed gathered at the palace of Eze Kanu with the intention of committing acts of terrorism, they would not have come with children.
â€œIt is highly doubtful anywhere in the world that criminals will go to commit terrorism in the company of their children,â€ he argued.
The legal practitioner said when he got wind of the arrest on Sunday; he had raced down to the police station where the children of the accused were released to him on trust.
â€œThe children were released to me by the police and I accommodated them in a hotel till this morning. Some of them are even sick and needed medical attention. They have been at the place of worship since Friday and not violent. Even one of the accused is about 75 years and unlikely to jump bail.
â€œWhen the children were released to me yesterday, they were very hungry and I gave them mango to eat. Police should be called to order because the accused have nothing to associate them as IPOB members. They were only there as Jewish adherents to pray. They were there in their numbers including their children and some women to pray and not for terrorism,â€ he said.
Ejimakor drew the attention of the Magistrate that some of the children aged between four and 10 released to him by the police were also in the court. They were asked to file out for identification, and the children aged between four and 10, numbering about eight looked frail and worn out.
Despite the submissions of the defence counsels that the accused have the constitutional right to be granted bail, the police prosecutor argued that the magistrate court lacked jurisdiction over the case. He therefore asked that the accused should be detained pending the time the state Director of Public Prosecution ( DPP) would charge the matter to High Court.
Apparently angered by the argument of the police prosecutor, the presiding magistrate asked him why he had to bring the matter to magistrate court knowing that it lacked jurisdiction over it. Nonetheless, the magistrate remanded the accused in prison custody and adjourned the matter to May 30.
Speaking with journalists, Chionye insisted that the accused were not terrorists and regretted that the security agents instead of going for real terrorists have decided to go about harassing innocent worshipers.
He lashed out at the police saying, â€œHerdsmen with AK47 are roaming about in our backyard and no security agent is touching them. Is this one Nigeria? This is unacceptableâ€.