Despite the provisions of section 296 of the 2015 Administration of Criminal Justice Act, ACJA, many accused persons in Akwa Ibom State have remained in prison custody awaiting trial for over 10 years.
The long wait has not only contributed to the congestion of prison cells but has put pressure on the staff, as well as the economic disposition of the Federal Government as the amount for feeding and medicals of those awaiting trial is overwhelming.
Investigations revealed that out of 3,047 inmates in Akwa Ibom State as at March ending, 2,559 are awaiting trial, while 488 have been tried and convicted.
Those in the awaiting trial lists are not only those who committed heavy offences but some innocent persons and others who allegedly engaged in various forms of misdemeanours.
There is a case of one Goodnews Isaiah, 26, an awaiting trial inmate of Eket Custodial Centre, who narrated before the Akwa Ibom State Chief Judge, Justice Ekaette Obot during her prison inspection how he was arrested since 2019 by police operatives on patrol while he was coming back from work.
According to Goodnews who said he worked with a bakery at Eket: “while I was coming back from work around 11 pm (as I was on evening shift), a police patrol van accosted me; I told them that I was coming back from work, they arrested me saying that I was an armed robber, that I was coming back from an operation. They took me to the station alongside other people they saw that night.
“Fortunately for others, they were later released after paying a huge amount to the police for bail but I still remained in custody because no one came for my bail since the incident in 2019. I have been praying to God to help me so that they will charge me to court.”
Also, one John Sunday Akpan charged with “unlawful Stealing” in Ikot Abasi custodial Centre narrated before the Chief Judge how his uncle got him arrested for cutting a bunch of plantain in their family farmland.
He claimed that his uncle who refused to give him his father’s portion of land told the officers to deal with him decisively, adding that he had stayed in prison custody for about three years without being taken to court.
On his part, a 29-year-old tricycle rider in Uyo custodial centre, Ephraim Udo narrated how his wife’s mother, a policewoman, ordered his arrest and incarceration for attempting to marry her daughter.
The prison entry book showed that the inmate has been in custody for four years without trial.
Udo explained, “My Lord, I have two children with the daughter of the policewoman. We have been in love for some years but the mother vowed that the daughter will not marry a ‘keke rider’. She therefore ordered his men to arrest me and they sent me to prison for over four years.”
These were few out of many instances of persons languishing in Akwa Ibom prisons while awaiting trial which from every indication comes at a snail pace.
The State Chief Judge after listening patiently released them, alongside 42 others unconditionally using her powers of prerogative of mercy,
Obot, after investigating the cases of the awaiting-trials in the state decried the manner with which accused persons are being dumped in the prison cells without trials or their case files not being found.
She, however, blamed the delay and increase in the number of awaiting trial cases on the inability of the Police and the Director of Public Prosecution, DPP, to fast track case files. She decried many instances of ‘no case files’ witnessed in the court.
While calling on the police officers in charge of legal matters and the DPP to ensure diligence in prosecution to avoid disruption of justice delivery system, the CJ warned the police against unnecessary arrest of innocent persons and committing them into a custodial centre without thorough investigation, stressing that it was a breach of their constitutional rights.
Giving an insight on the causes of high awaiting trial cases in the state, the Coordinator, Akwa Ibom Human Rights Community, Clifford Thomas (Esq) said: “magistrates are handicapped in that they don’t have jurisdiction over trial of certain crimes which may compel them to order outright remand of suspects in prison custody and their case files transferred to DPP (which takes over two years to receive advice).”
He accused the police of most times making arbitrary arrest and charging the suspects for attempted armed robbery, arson, kidnapping or any other offences that would be beyond the bounds of the magistrate to adjudicate.
He lamented that the magistrates would in turn commit such suspects to prison without hearing from them because such offences are not bailable.
The human rights lawyer said magistrates should exercise the right of ‘Suo-moto’ by amending some of the charges before them and asking the complainant and the accused if they can opt for alternative resolution so that the rate at which the accused persons are committed into prison will be reduced.
He added that the Chief magistrate in-charge of a jurisdiction should go to police stations to check files of those confined over minor offences.
He regretted that some laws are impracticable and archaic, highlighting the Akwa Ibom Civil Procedure Rules of 2009 which are still in use, adding, “you need to see the difficulty in a particular rule and see how to thinker it.”
He said, “the high court should be enjoined to look at these charges and some of the cases that are frivolous should be thrown out. We should show judicial activism which should not be only from the bar; the bench should also be involved.
“The Chief Judge has the powers to do practice direction, she can look at the situation, call a committee of three persons to review, give the magistrate powers to verify whether those offences are right or wrong, by doing so, judicial processes would be strengthened.”
He also called for the provision of an electronic-based court system in the state to facilitate speedy delivery of justice, saying that such would stop judges from writing in long hands and concentrate on listening and reflecting on the proceedings, as well as observing the demeanour of witnesses before the court.