Nigeria – When 23 year-old Mustapha Owolabi, a resident of Abeokuta, Ogun state left his house to a mechanic workshop where he was an apprentice, he never imagined that it would take him 9 years to return.
As he left his house on that morning of April 6, 2013, Mustapha had no premonition that trouble was lurking in the corner.
As he gleefully trekked towards his workshop, three fierce looking plain cloth Policemen suddenly accosted him at a corner. Before he could inquire why he was been arrested, several hot slaps had landed on his face. The more he tried to resist being pulled towards a waiting police van, the more slaps and kicks he got from the Police officers.
As he struggled to make sense of the whole drama at the back of the Police van where he was forcefully pushed into, many other young boys like him were also arrested in similar fashion at different locations in Ogun and Lagos and taken to the dreaded SARS office in Ikeja, Lagos.
Paraded for possession of firearms
Narrating his harrowing experience at the SARS office, Mustapha said he was asked to get somebody to bail him and that when he couldn’t reach any of his family members, his offence was changed to armed robbery.
“When they brought us to SARS Ikeja, everyone was asked to contact their relations to bail them. My father was already late at the time I was arrested and I couldn’t reach out to any other person in my family. One day, one of the officers told me that I should agree with whatever they said I did else they will ‘waste’, me. By then, my daily beating was getting too much so I agreed to accept anything they said I did.
“One day, they paraded me and one other person, surrounded us with guns and asked us to agree that the guns were recovered from us. I know that if I refused to corporate with them, they will kill me, so I agreed with all they said we did. I spent about three months in detention at their office before I was taken to court. “
Journey to Kirikiri
After Mustapha’s case made headlines in the media, he was arraigned before an Ikeja Magistrate on a ‘Holden Charge’ of illegal possession of fire arms. The court subsequently made an order for his remand at Kirikiri prison pending a legal advice from the Lagos state Directorate of Public Prosecution, DPP.
For two years, 2013 to 2015 when the Magistrate court gave the order for his remand, and the Lagos DPP issued a legal advice on the matter, Mustapha was left to languish in prison until early 2016 when the DPP further directed the Police to arraign him before the High Court of Lagos for possession of fire arms.
Police ignores DPP’s advice
After the DPP managed to issue a legal advice recommending that Mustapha be tried before the High Court, the Police never acted on the advise. Mustapha said that after two years of waiting to be properly arraigned so that he could prove his innocence before the court, he gave up hope of ever being released. For the next two years, Mustapha said he became a shadow of himself and completely lost interest in recreational or social activities in the prison.
Maximum penalty for possession of firearms
According to the provisions of the Criminal Law of Lagos State 2011, under which Mustapha’s alleged crime was captured, the maximum penalty for the offence of unlawful possession of firearms is three years. Since he was arraigned before the Magistrate Court at the first instance in 2013, by 2016, Mustapha ought to have been released having served the number of years he ought to have if found guilty. But that was not the case as he had spent 4 years in prison as at 2017.
DPP’s strange legal advice
Despite being aware of this provision of the law and also aware that Mustapha had spent four years at the Kirikiri prison, the Lagos DPP strangely issued another Legal Advice in 2017 for his prosecution for same offence before an Ikeja Magistrate Court. After the strange advise was given, no action was still taken to properly arraign Mustapha by either the Police or the DPP until 2019 when the law firm of Dr. Charles Mekwunye, SAN under its pro bono policy for young lawyers in the firm took over the matter.
Protracted legal battle to free Mustapha
In the Fundamental Human Right Enforcement suit filed by Miss Deborah Ogedengbe, in 2019 before the Federal High Court, Lagos on behalf of Mustapha, she enumerated the clear abuse of Mustapha’s fundamental rights by the Police and DPP and prayed the court to order his immediate release and also granted damages against the respondents.
The Police and DPP filed their separate responses to the suit same year. While the Police maintained that Mustapha’s detention was ordered by a Magistrate court, the Lagos DPP challenged the jurisdiction of the court to hear the matter and further claimed that it was the duty of the Police to prosecute Mustapha since legal advice had been issued. The matter dragged for three years until May 3, 2022 when Justice J. Lifu delivered judgment in the matter.
Court indicts Police, DPP
In his judgment Justice Lifu blamed the Police and the DPP for the unjust prolonged detention of Mustapha in prison for nine years for an offence with a maximum sentence of three years. The judge condemned the actions of the two public institutions and called for immediate review of similar cases in prisons.
He held: “Based on the available facts and exhibits, the 1st and 2nd Respondents (Police and DPP) have played an ignoble role in the nine years detention of this Applicant without trial. The 1st and 2nd Respondents, no doubt are in flagrant violation of Section 34 (4) and (5) of the Constitution which requires the trial of the Applicant within a reasonable time as this instant case of unlawful possession of fire arm cannot and is not a capital offence to create an exception under Subsection 7 of Section 34 of the Constitution 1999 as amended.
“From the totality of the above reasoning and conclusion, it has once again brought to fore the flaw in our observance and respect for human rights by public institutions vested with that responsibility. Nations today are valued and respected by the observance of human rights. Our country, Nigeria should not be lagging behind in that quest.
“It is in that wise that, all law enforcement agents and all stakeholders in this enterprise are to be held accountable. The Court as custodian of justice should not be lagging in their responsibilities as gate keepers in that regard. “The conducts of the lst and 2nd Respondents are herein a manifestation of the decadence our society is heading to if not checkmated by the external vigilance of the courts. Such outrageous conduct leading to the Applicant to rot away in our correctional facility which is deplorable needing attention should be discouraged at all times.
“In the instant case, the actions of the 1st and 2nd Respondents against the Applicant, is a signal that so many of such Applicants are in the awaiting trial section of our correctional facilities. I use this medium therefore to call on the relevant authorities to be alive to the responsibilities bestowed on them.”
The judge awarded N2million damages against the Police and the DPP but both agencies are yet to comply to the order to pay Mustapha.
My ordeal in prison
Narrating his ordeal to Encounter, Mustapha now 32 years said: “The pains and torture I suffered for those nine years is something I cannot finish narrating in one day. Before I got into the prison, I was an apprentice mechanic but my mates back then, now have their own mechanic workshops.
“While in prison, I went through hell. I almost became a mad man because of too much thinking. I still suffered severe chest pain because of the beating I was subjected to while in SARS detention. When I initially refused to agree to their cooked up allegation, they used heavy wood to hit my check. I am still suffering the pain till today.
“What the Police did to me was very wicked but I leave them to God. God will judge them at his own time. Since I was released in May, things have not been easy but I am learning to live one day at a time. But for that lawyer and her boss that God used to deliver me, perhaps I will still be in prison till today. I will forever be grateful to them.”