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Our ugly encounters with SARS operatives

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our-ugly-encounters-with-sars-operatives

As the nation smarts from the violence and destruction that resulted from the protests against the highhandedness of officers of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) unit of the Nigeria Police Force, KUNLE AKINRINADE examines the pathetic cases of some Nigerians allegedly brutalised to death by policemen and how their relations have searched in vain for justice.

October 2, 2020, Omolola Ajibade was a hale and hearty woman until her ugly encounter with operatives of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) on October 2, 2020. The 33-year-old trader and mother of one lost the use of her leg after she was allegedly brutally assaulted by operatives of the disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) during an illegal raid in Ajuwon area of Lagos State.

The incident, according to Ajibade, who now walks with the aid of crutches, occurred in front of Raji Plaza on Alagbole Road, Ajuwon.

Ajibade, who sells men’s wears, was waiting for a vehicle to take her home after she attended a show organised by one of her friends, when a team of SARS operatives appeared in a mini bus and tried to arrest her for alleged wandering at about 11 pm.

The 33-year-old indigene of Ekiti State said she was waiting at the bus stop with her boyfriend     when the SARS operatives arrived and tried to force her and her boyfriend into their bus.

The SARS operatives were said to have slapped Ajibade several times for demanding an explanation for her arrest at a time there was no curfew or restriction of movement.

In the process of trying to force her into their operation van, one of the officers allegedly broke Ajibade’s right leg with the butt of his rifle, pushing her and her boyfriend into the bus and driving them to the Ajuwon Police Station in Ogun State alongside two others.

Ajibade said: “The incident occurred on October 2, 2020. One of my friends who operates a wine shop at Raji Plaza had staged a musical show in celebration of Nigeria’s 60th independence anniversary. I attended the show with my boyfriend and sold some men’s wear to male revelers at the event.

“The show ended at about 10 pm and the vehicle that was to take us home had taken some of those who attended the event to their homes.

“We were waiting at the bus stop in front of the plaza when a mini-bus conveying a team of SARS operatives halted where I stood with my boyfriend and two others, and the policemen attempted to arrest us.

“I tried to explain to them that we were waiting for the car that would take us home, which had just left a few minutes earlier to drop some revelers at their homes in the neighbourhood, but one of the officers slapped me for having the effrontery to talk.

“I told the officer that slapped me that he had no right to do so because I demanded an explanation for an unlawful raid at a time there was no restriction on movements.

“The officers felt offended by my remarks and one of them broke my leg with the butt of his rifle, following which I collapsed.

“Still, the unfeeling officers dragged me into their bus and drove us to Ajuwon Police Station, where I was dumped on the floor of a cell.

“Realising that my right leg had been broken with the butt of their rifle, one of them picked me up from the floor inside the police station where I reclined and raised the alarm that I needed urgent medical attention because I could no longer walk.”

Jolted by the incident, the policemen hurriedly released Ajibade’s boyfriend and two others detained at the station.

Ajibade, who now walks with the aid of crutches, said that rather than keep her in the hospital, the police authorities at Ajuwon Division hired an orthopaedic nurse to treat her at home.

She said: “I want justice served in this matter because I have been told that I risk losing my leg completely if I do not receive adequate treatment to restore it.”

The spokesman of Ogun State Police Command, Mr Abimbola Oyeyemi, however, said Ajibade’s leg was fractured after she hit it against the body of the police patrol vehicle while resisting arrest.

Like Ajibade, a graphic footage had surfaced a few weeks ago on the social media, showing operatives of the Federal Anti-Robbery Squad (FedSARS) dragging two men from a hotel in Lagos and shooting one of them in the street.

In spite of the outrage generated by the footage across the country, SARS operatives were said to have forced one of them to part with the sum of N150,000 before he could regain his freedom.

The footage led many citizens to call for outright scrapping of SARS across the states of the federation, following reports of widespread human rights abuse, including brutality and extra-judicial killings, perpetrated by the notorious police outfit in recent times.

A social media user, Vaughn Itemuagbor, recently narrated how he was subjected to harassment and intimidation during two encounters with SARS operatives, which he said had left him with bodily injuries, saying that SARS officials seemed to have singled him out for torture on a monthly basis.

OTHER CHILLING TALES OF POLICE BRUTALITY

On September 8, 2011, one Ismaila Quadri, a baker, was arrested by some policemen led by one Corporal Mayowa Obaniyi a.k.a. Mayor and Waheed, who accused him of smoking Indian hemp.

Quadri, a native of Igbemo-Ekiti, Ekiti State, who ran a flourishing Olusola Bakery on 29, Andrew Kalu Crescent, Baruwa, Ipaja, where he also built a house, was dragged out of his bakery, beaten and handcuffed before he was dragged to the Ipaja Police Station. All entreaties from other landlords in the area fell on deaf ears.

At the station, he was subjected to further beating with his hands tied backward to a stationery motorcycle at the station. He was kicked, whipped and hit with hard objects by the two policemen until he fell into coma and was untied from the stationery motorcycle.

The errant policemen first rushed him to a private hospital in the neighbourhood where doctors confirmed that his spinal cord had broken and referred him to the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital (LASUTH), Ikeja, where he died.

The then spokesman of the Lagos State Police Command, Mr. Samuel Jinadu, a Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP), had told our correspondent that the late Quadri was arrested for being in possession of Indian hemp, adding that the police officers involved had been arrested and would be dealt with if found guilty.

He said: “Well, we have arrested two policemen in connection with the case, and if they are found culpable, we will take decisive action and they will be dealt with.

“The matter has been transferred to the State Criminal Investigation Department (SCID) Panti, Yaba, Lagos, and investigation is still ongoing.

“I was told the policemen went on a general raid of Indian hemp smokers in the area when they arrested the deceased, but I cannot confirm to you if he was beaten or not.

“I couldn’t offer you my comment on the matter the last time you called because the Divisional Police Officer (Mr. Chikezie Okezie) of the station involved had not properly briefed me about the incident, but he later did.”

A 400-level student of the Federal University of Agriculture, Makurdi, Benue State, Samuel Chimezie Omeagwa, met his tragic death in circumstances similar to Quadri’s on May 16, 2016.

As the story goes, Omeagwa and one of his friends, Ekene, were arrested by the operatives of Police Thunder Zone 4 Office, Old G.R.A, Makurdi, for complicity in the case of a stolen phone.

At the station, they were allegedly laid on the bare floor with a flash-light permanently fixed to their faces as they were tortured by an officer nicknamed ‘Undertaker’.

By the time he was released to his parents the following day, Omeagwa had become unconscious and had to be rushed to the Federal Medical Centre, Makurdi, where he died.

The same fate befell a 70-year-old transporter and chieftain of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), Pa Gbenga Omolo, who was allegedly tortured to death while he was being detained by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad of the Ondo State Police Command.

Omolo was reportedly tortured by police officers for several hours at the SARS office on Oda Road, Akure, the state capital. He died in their custody after he was mercilessly beaten by the minions of law.

His offence, according to his union’s members who staged a protest over his death, was that he had the effrontery to question a police officer in mufti for obstructing traffic on Arakale Road in Akure on May 26, 2015.

The former spokesman of the state police command, Wole Ogodo, said the policemen involved in the act had been arrested and detained at the Police Headquarters on Igbatoro Road, Akure, for further investigation on the incident while the state commissioner of police had invited the family members of the deceased to his office to discuss the matter. That was the last that was heard about the case.

The case of two suspects, Sodiq Omobowale and Waheed Kabir, who were arrested by men of Ikorodu Police Station, further exposed the use of brutal force on people by the police. Omobowale was arrested in his home on July 7, 2015 on suspicion that he was a member of a secret cult. Attempts made by his family members to secure his bail were rebuffed by policemen at the station. A few days later, he was said to have been tortured to death while his body had not been released to his parents at press time.

Kabir (26), a musician, was also arrested during a raid by policemen from the same station on November 20, 2015 on the suspicion that he belonged to a secret cult. His father made fruitless efforts to secure his bail. It later emerged that Kabir was tortured to death in police custody and his body was not released to his parents for burial to date.

The immediate past spokesman of the Lagos Police Command, Mr Joe Offor, in a telephone conversation with The Nation, said: “Following the alleged abduction of Waidi Kabir and the petition sent to the Lagos State Police Command by his parents, the Commissioner of Police (CP), Mr Fatai Owoseni, questioned the DPO and asked him to provide evidence of the identity of the surety to whom the suspect was released to on bail.

“The DPO later brought a bail bond signed by the surety following which the CP ordered him to either produce the suspect or the surety within four days. The DPO at the expiration of the ultimatum could not produce either the suspect or his surety. Hence, the CP ordered his arrest and detention at the SCID while investigation is ongoing.

“At the end of our investigation, we shall issue a public statement on the outcome of our findings in the matter.

SMOKESCREEN

In the case of Quadri, the police tried to cover up its indiscretion by writing a letter asking the authorities of LASUTH to release Quadri’s body, which was then awaiting autopsy, for immediate burial according to Islamic rites.

In the handwritten letter dated September 19, 2011, the then Divisional Police Officer (DPO) of the Ipaja Police Station, Mr. Chikezie Okesie, requested LASUTH to immediately release the body for burial based on the alleged complaint of a family member called Vincent. But the request was turned down by the hospital management for reasons bordering on absence of proper autopsy on the body and duly signed inquest note by a Magistrate.

Besides, the family of the late baker faulted the claim made by the police in the letter that the body should be released to a family member called Vincent. In a statement, a relation of the deceased, Akeem Bello, said the Vincent the police referred to in the letter, was not known to the family, as they are mainly Muslims.

The allegation that the deceased was tortured to death was confirmed after a report issued by the Pathology Department of LASUTH on Quadris’ autopsy, which indicated that he was brutalised to death while in police custody.

Subsequently, a letter dated November 20, 2011 and signed by Senior Special Assistant (SSA) to the then governor of Lagos State, Babatunde Fashola on Public Law, Bola Agunbiade, was forwarded to the office of the Inspector General of Police, Afiz Ringim, in Abuja and that of Lagos State Police Commissioner, Mr. Yakubu Alkali, asking for justice for the late baker.

It happened that the police was yet to compensate Quadri’s bereaved family to date.

Although the DPO of Ikorodu Police Station, Remi Adesoye, initially claimed that Kabir was released to a family member called Akala, his father faulted his claim. The celebrated case led to the removal of the DPO of the station after he failed to produce Kabir or his supposed uncle to whom he was released, as directed by the then Commissioner of Police, Fatai Owoseni.

Although, the community leaders intervened to dissuade Kabir’s parents from taking further action on the matter, his dissatisfied elder brother, Lekan, instituted an action at a Federal High Court sitting in Lagos.

In a landmark judgment, the court in October 2016 ordered the police to pay his family the sum of N200 million as compensation for Kabir’s death in custody. The ruling has since been appealed by the police at a Court of Appeal sitting in Lagos, despite not making any representation throughout the duration of the suit at the lower court.

JUSTICE DELAYED

The poor criminal justice system in the country provides a shield for security operatives involved in brutality and denial of justice for victims. In Nigeria, confessional statements obtained from torture are mostly relied upon during trial in cases involving capital punishment and, in certain instances, minor offences like stealing or fraud.

Victims of fatal brutality in custody hardly get justice due to the weakness of the criminal justice system, whereby cases bordering on right violation drag for too long. Delay in dispensation of justice in the country is one of the major problems confronting the administration of criminal justice as criminal trials often delay for too long, leading to perversion of justice.

The greatest battle Moriamo Quadri fought till she breathed her last in November 2016 was not the cancer of the breast that eventually terminated her life. It was her fruitless quest for justice over the killing of her husband, Ismaila Quadri, allegedly by men of Ipaja Police Station in Alimosho area of Lagos State.

The two minions fingered in Quadri’s brutal killing, Mayowa and Waheed, were initially arraigned before magistrate’s court in Yaba area of Lagos on a holding charge, but the case has not made any headway since 2012, due to incessant adjournments till the late baker’s wife, Moriamo, died last month.

“We kept going to court while the case was incessantly adjourned. At a point, the accused persons were not brought to court. For several weeks, we were told that the court was waiting for advice from the Directorate of Public Prosecutions (DPP).

“To my greatest surprise, the case against one of the policemen who tortured my husband to death, Mayowa, was dropped and he is now roaming free. The other one (Waheed) has not been convicted to date because of unnecessary delayed trial and adjournments,” Moriamo expressed her frustration a few months before she died in 2013.

The inability of the families of the victims—Quadri, Abdullahi and Omola—to get justice over the brutal killing of their patriarchs underscores the need to reform the country’s poor criminal justice system and the discontinuation of cruel extraction of confessional statements from suspects.

Also, most of the victims of torture do not get justice because their families are handicapped by lack of money to hire lawyers and institute legal action against the culprits and their law enforcement agencies.

“Extrajudicial executions, other unlawful killings and enforced disappearances in Nigeria are not random. In a country where bribes guarantee safety, those who cannot afford to pay are at risk of being shot or tortured to death by the police.

“The family of the victims often cannot afford to seek justice or redress, because they cannot pay for a lawyer or the court charges. In many cases, they cannot even afford to retrieve the body. In many cases, detainees wait for weeks or months in police custody to be charged and brought before a court,” PRAWA and NOPRIN noted.

EXPERTS SPEAK

A human rights lawyer, Anthony Ndukwe condemned the cruel acts of the police and other law enforcement agents on suspects or detainees.

“The duty of law enforcement agents is to arraign a suspect in court and provide evidence for prosecution during trial. It is criminal for minions of law to beat or brutalise suspects either during the time of arrest or in custody.

“Any policeman, SSS operative or other law enforcement agent who does that should be punished for such misconduct.”

An activist, Adeola Adelabu, called for retraining of law enforcement agents in dealing with suspects, saying: “There is need for police and other security personnel to exhibit common civility when arresting or interrogating suspects.

“I want to urge that law enforcement agents should be retrained on how best to handle suspects with civility in line with best practices globally, while adequate compensation should be given to victims of brutality and their bereaved family members.”

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