A human rights activist and Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Mr. Femi Falana, has accused politicians and some senior lawyers of hijacking the criminal justice system and working together to frustrate the effective prosecution of corruption cases pending in several courts.
Falana said this in a paper titled: “The Danger of Unequal Criminal Justice System in Nigeria,” which he presented yesterday at the 2019 Law Week of the Epe Branch of the Nigerian Bar Association, Epe, Lagos State.
In the paper, Falana urged progressive lawyers to team up with other patriotic forces to ensure that all defendants are treated equally under the criminal justice system.
He noted that apart from two former governors namely, Messrs Joshua Dariye and Jolly Nyame, the list of convicted persons is made of lowly placed individuals in the society adding that owing to abuse of court process, rich defendants have continued to frustrate their prosecution with the connivance of some senior lawyers.
“By virtue of section 17 (2) (a) of the Constitution of Nigeria 1999 (as amended), every citizen shall have equality of rights, obligations and opportunities before the law. But in practice, the rich and poor defendants are not treated equally by Nigerian courts. Apart from the fact that rich litigants have the means to hire the services of the best lawyers in any area of the law, the courts are manned by judges who are not neutral in the class struggle being waged daily by the Nigerian people.”
Citing media reports, Falana noted that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) secured 312 convictions and recovered assets worth N11.5 billion in 2018.
He also added that the agency recorded 192 convictions and recovered assets of N117 billion.
Falana alleged bias in addressing the cases, saying that the federal government had set up the Legal Aid Council to provide legal services to indigent citizens but added that due to inadequate funding by the federal government, each state government had established the Office of Public Defender to ensure that underprivileged citizens were provided with legal services.
“It is common knowledge that Nigeria operates a double criminal justice system, one for the rich and one for the poor. Majority of indigent defendants are tried in the magistrate and area courts which have no access to lawyers or are represented by young and inexperienced lawyers assigned to them by the state.”
He added that the EFCC had been accused by the bourgeois media of engaging in Gestapo tactics regarding treatment of suspects involving influential men and women being investigated by the commission, who usually receive polite letters of invitation, telephone calls or text messages advising them to contact named investigators whose telephone numbers are supplied.
“Through such arrangement, the suspects are allowed to report themselves at their own convenience. Other suspects may decide to vamoose or brief lawyers to embark on legal measures to shield them from investigation and prosecution.”
He argued that the prejudice in treatment of suspects with regard to their economic and social stratification is unjust and should be corrected.
Falana lamented that influential criminal suspects who report themselves are treated with utmost courtesy by the investigators as they are presumed innocent until they are proved guilty by the state and are also never paraded before the media, regardless of the gravity of the offence committed by them.
“Owing to unequal justice that has become the hallmark of the nation’s criminal justice system the prisons and police cells are filled with the victims of our unjust socioeconomic system.”
He said the insistence by the bourgeois lawyers and media practitioners that the influential criminal suspects are entitled to presumption of innocence guaranteed by section 36 of the Constitution is the height of hypocrisy in a country where the names of petty criminal suspects are published, paraded and tried.
He argued that the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) which did not hesitate to mobilise hundreds of lawyers to defend indicted senior lawyers and judges has not deemed it fit to extend free legal services to indigent defendants facing trial for poverty-related offences in the courts.
“As a judicial policy under the bourgeois legal system, applications for bail on behalf of poor defendants are not always granted by trial courts on the grounds that the defendants may not be able to produce reliable persons to stand sureties for them. Even if bail is granted the conditions attached to them are hardly met as they are tied to ownership of properties by sureties. Since preliminary objections are not filed by such defendants the trial courts are able to conduct criminal cases involving them expeditiously,” Falana explained.
He urged that Nigerian lawyers to make a strong case for the actualisation of the socio-economic rights embodied in the fundamental objectives and directive principles and set out in chapter 2 of the Constitution.”