Funmilayo Odude, Legal Practitioner, Damod Law Practice
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Time to end the illegal parade of crime suspects 16 Jan 2019
Sometime in June 2018, a legal practitioner, Lawrence C. Nnoli, filed a suit at the Federal High Court, Lagos, against the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), challenging the Commission’s practice of parading its suspects. This practice entails forcing suspects to carry placards depicting their names and the alleged offences. Pictures of the suspects are also taken and posted on the Commission’s website and social media platforms.
Nnoli’s suit, which has been adjourned for hearing, seeks, among other reliefs, an order of perpetual injunction restraining the EFCC from such public parade of suspects. While this particular suit has not been decided, there have been various court pronouncements in Nigeria and at the ECOWAS Court, declaring as unconstitutional the act of parading suspects before the media.
The Federal High Court sitting in Calabar in 2011 awarded the sum of N20 million as damages in favour of Ottoh Obono, who was paraded by the police as a member of a gang of armed robbers and subsequently remanded pending the advice of the Directorate of Public Prosecution (DPP). The DPP subsequently declared Obono was innocent of the crime for which he was charged and no charge was filed against him. But the damage to his reputation had been done.
The Court held that the act of parading him breached his fundamental right to presumption of innocence. In the case of Ndukwem Chiziri Nice v. Attorney General of the Federation, the Court referred to the act as “a callous disregard” for the person of the suspect.
In spite of the provisions of the Constitution and the various court pronouncements on the parade of suspects, security agencies in Nigeria have continued the practice. Beyond merely parading the suspects, sometimes they are subjected to questioning by pressmen. In December 2018, there were two incidents that brought this issue to the public’s attention once again.
Early in the month, a woman known as Amina Mohammed was paraded by the Department of State Security Services (DSS) at its Abuja office for fraud. She was accused of using the name of the President’s wife, Aisha Buhari, to commit fraud. While any form of parade of suspects strips them of their dignity, this particular one was fraught with ignominy.
From the video, which quickly became viral, Amina Mohammed was seen trying to hide her face when she was brought into the media room. First, she attempted to use a veil. When the veil was snatched from her, she used her Ankara scarf. When someone then tried to drag at the scarf, she ducked under the table as it became an embarrassing and humiliating game of cat and mouse all in a bid to get her face on camera. The humiliation did not stop until Ms. Mohammed began to name notable people connected with the alleged fraud.
In the other incident that happened last month, the EFCC ‘intercepted’ the sum of USD2.8 million in cash at the Enugu airport. The Commission then immediately released the identity and pictures of the two suspects to the media. The two men have been discovered to be employees of Bankers Warehouse Limited. Both the company and Union Bank have decried the actions of the Commission and maintained that the movement of the cash was for a legitimate transaction.
But no matter the outcome of the investigation, it may be impossible to completely remove from the internet or circulation the pictures of the two men as they stooped in front of a box filled with dollars, portraying them as fraudsters. Under our law, a person suspected to have committed a crime has fundamental rights that enure to his or her favour, including the right to remain silent and the right to legal representation. A person is also to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
A Justice of the Court of Appeal, P.O. Ige (JCA), gave a succinct interpretation of the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty in the case of John Ekele v. Federal Republic of Nigeria when he stated: “This basically means that until a judicial pronouncement on the guilt or otherwise of the accused person is made, he/she is to be treated the same as a regular person.”
This right, enshrined in Section 36 (5) of the Constitution and Article 7 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, is the underlying rationale behind the granting of bail to accused persons, pending the determination of the charges against them. The conditions of bail given by courts are to protect the competing right of the state to ensure the attendance of the accused person at his or her trial. This fundamental human right is also the foundational basis upon which the standard of proof (proof beyond reasonable doubt) and the burden of proof (which is on the prosecution) are set in criminal cases.
A sure way to give this right practical meaning is to ask the following question: Would an innocent person be paraded in such a way or manner? The practical reality of the presumption of innocence is that until the court of law convicts a person of a crime, he is innocent in law and should be treated as such, no matter how glaring or overwhelming the evidence against him or her might seem.
Security agencies in Nigeria have over the years tried to defend the parade of suspects. In the suit filed by Nnoli, the EFCC, in its counter-affidavit filed in response to the suit, maintained that the act was necessary to eradicate the commission of economic and financial crimes in Nigeria, a mandate the Commission has under Section 6 of its establishing law. Dolapo Badmus, Police Public Relations Officer (PRO) for Zone 2 Command, Lagos, reportedly gave a similar defence for the parade of suspects by the police. She is reported to have said that parading suspects will go a long way to serve as a deterrent to others, thereby reducing the tendency of criminality.
The Police PRO also stated that as long as the term ‘suspect’ is used by the police in relation to the individual being paraded, no law has been broken. The current Inspector General of Police (IGP), Ibrahim Idris, has endorsed the practice, stating that it has boosted public confidence in the police.
The notion that marching suspects in front of the media has led to a decrease in crime or it serves as a deterrence to crime is not supported by any empirical evidence. In any event, the position is a poor defence for an unconstitutional act. Also, rather than boost confidence in our criminal justice system, parading suspects has done the opposite. Citizens have become wary of the practice that hardly leads to successful prosecutions and convictions.
The illegal parade of suspects must be distinguished from identification parades. Identification parade is part of our criminal process and is a police procedure whereby suspects and other physically similar persons are lined up so that victim(s) or witness(es) can identify the perpetrator of a crime. The media parade of crime suspects has no useful aim in the investigative process. Besides, dehumanising individuals in such an irreversible manner is too high a price to boost the ego of our security agencies.
As we continue to grow as a democratic nation that upholds the rule of law and protects the fundamental rights of its citizens, the practice of parading suspects is one of the residues of the military era we must do away with.