Insight

COVID-19 protocols: Police, prisons’ breach endangers accused, suspects’ lives (2)

The second wave of COVID-19 has been adjudged by experts to be deadlier, but shockingly the police in Lagos State are flouting the Coronavirus protocols, thereby endangering their lives and those of detainees. In this report, JULIANA FRANCIS looks at how police and the Nigeria Correctional Service breach COVID-19 guidelines with arbitrary arrests and frivolous demands for tests

Stakeholders on criminal justice system

A human rights lawyer, Ngwu Nathaniel Nonyelum, working with Justice for Peace and Development Initiative (JPDI), said the stuffing of suspects in police cells because of COVID-19 test result demand is a violation of their fundamental human rights. The lawyer, who is also the Coordinator, Criminal Justice Network of Nigeria, said his client accused of theft, also faced a similar situation.

He said: “The matter is pending at the Yaba Magistrates’ Court. The COVID-19 test was conducted on him at the SCIID before the NCS admitted him. Last year, following the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic, the NCS stopped admitting inmates to halt spread.

We discovered that during our visits to some detention facilities, the NCS no longer admits new inmates. This resulted in the continuous detention of these suspects in police and other law enforcement cells, which we condemned.” He noted that even after the court trial, accused persons, who didn’t go for the COVID-19 test, were returned to police cells.

“Some suspects have been in police cells for long because they have not done the COVID-19 test and this infringes on their fundamental human rights. We have nothing against the accused going for a test to avoid infecting others, but putting too many suspects in a single cell is a great violation of their fundamental rights. The government needs to complement the community service law, whereby some of these suspects will be convicted of their offences and referred to do community service. But this is not with regard to felonious crimes.” One of the most vexed by the situation is Mr. Ebenezer Omejalile, co-founder, Advocates for Children and Vulnerable Persons Network (ACVPN).

Omejalile said the demand for COVID-19 test results from the accused is affecting prosecution and aiding perpetrators of sex-related offences to walk. He said: “Right now, we have many cases pending at the Gender Unit of the Lagos State Police Command due to requirements for COVID- 19 test results from suspects.

I understand from police personnel that the suspects are expected to pay N52,000 for the test and that the police units have been paying for it. Police told me that they paid N52,000 at Disease Infectious Disease Hospital in Yaba for one of our sus-pects called Sunday. He has done the test and now the centre said it couldn’t find his result.

This means he will have to go for another test because after 14 days, the initial test would have expired.” The human rights activist explained that the officials would come to take samples, but when the police asked for the results, the officials would allegedly demand payment. “We have at least 10 cases waiting to be taken to court.

The government and hospitals should come to the aid of the police,” Omejalile added. Omejalile also heard from the police that suspects who tested positive are left in cells and given treatment right there, among other suspects. He said: “The positive ones are left in the cell. But the Gender Unit presently has three cases, where the suspects are positive, but don’t exhibit COVID-19 symptoms.”

Efforts to get comments from the Ministry of Justice through its Director of Public Affairs, Mr. Kayode Oyekanmi, proved abortive. He didn’t pick his calls and when he was finally contacted via WhatsApp, he promised to get back to our correspondent, but never did. However, one of the counsel of the Ministry of Justice, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told our correspondent that the ministry is aware of the new remand policy which requires defendants to show their COVID-19 test results before being admitted (remanded) at the correctional service facility.

“The issue of certifying accused persons or remand persons at the Correctional Service Centres was a decision taken at the instance of the prison authorities, during a stakeholders’ meeting, as a means of curbing the spread of the COVID-19 virus among inmates.

So what happens now is that once a defendant or accused person is remanded by a court of competent jurisdiction, he/she is expected to conduct or present a Covid-19 test result before being admitted or allowed entry into the correctional facility by the prison authorities.

“Therefore, where a defendant, now on remand, is yet to conduct the test, he or she would be temporarily detained at the facilities of the security agency in charge of prosecution. The issue of the police facilitating the payment of the defendant’s COVID-19 test is what I cannot say for sure.

But I presume that before this decision was taken during the stakeholders’ meeting, provisions must have been discussed and made regarding the financing. But I think the best place to make your enquiries regarding the issue of financing or cost effect of the COVID-19 test would be at the Ministry of Health, since that is where the tests are being conducted.

Therefore, they are in the best position to tell you whether the COVID-19 test for inmates is free or not, or actually being financed by the police as they’ve claimed,” the counsel said. Attempt was made to hear from the Lagos State Commissioner for Health, Prof. Akin Abayomi, the agreement reached at the stakeholders’ meetings and if suspects are expected to pay for their screening. He didn’t pick his calls and didn’t respond to text messages on the issue. The Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), Idi-Araba is among governmentowned health facilities said to be demanding money from police for COVID-19 test, when it is supposed to be free.

The Public Relations Officer (PRO), LUTH, Mr. Pius Ewa, however, denied the allegation. He said: “As far as we know, screening for COVID- 19 is free of charge for everyone.” On March 4, our reporter went to LUTH to pose as a Nigerian who needed to have the COVID-19 screening.

The idea was to know if it was truly for free as Ewa claimed. An official at LUTH said: “Screening is free, but for those planning to travel out, they have to pay. Also, for those we do free screening, we don’t give results. We call to tell them their status via phone.” Our reporter was also asked to come back some other day because those in charge of collecting samples for the screening were not around. It was also observed that those who came for the screening for the purpose of travelling out of the country were asked to go to private facilities.

A source told our reporter that the major challenge in Lagos with the COVID-19 test is lack of testing kits in most of the government centres. Our reporter went to the NCDC office in Abuja to collect data on the number of detainees screened, but was told that data or information on the number of detainees tested for COVID- 19 should be with the police.

They insisted such information is not domiciled with NCDC. Nwanguma said the IG’s protocols are commendable, but failure to put in place internal monitoring and effective disciplinary mechanisms to punish and deter infractions make compliance almost impossible. Nwanguma, who said that the police should stop blaming the NCS for the impasse, explained that the NCS Establishment Amendment Act mandates heads of the centres to undertake measures to decongest prisons, including non-custodial measures.

He said: “The majority of persons in prisons are awaiting trial for minor or in many cases false allegations brought against them by the police because such persons refused or could not provide money for bail while in police custody. Maliciously, the police will charge them to court and they are either ordered to be remanded in prison or are granted bail, but unable to fulfil their bail conditions, end up spending months or years in prison awaiting trial, compounding the crisis of prison congestion.” Nwanguma added that in rejecting persons remanded in prison for minor offences, the NCS is simply complying with the law establishing it.

He said: “Persons charged and convicted of minor offences must not go to prison. They can be made to do community service as alternative to imprisonment. On the other hand, the police are contributing to the problem by contravening the IG’s directives and maliciously charging people to court for such minor offences and in some cases, preferring frivolous charges just to punish people for non-compliance with their rampant demands for bribe.”

Suggesting ways on how policemen could stop being super spreaders of the virus, Nwanguma, said some of these minor issues can be resolved through alternative dispute resolution and other agencies like the citizens mediation centre. He said: “The police can actually do the work of mediation. What the police need to do is to take suspects to testing centres and shouldn’t ask them for money for the COVID-19 test.”

Police explain their predicament

If COVID-19 negative accused persons are taken to the NCS, what happens to the positive suspects or the accused? The Lagos State Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO), Muyiwa Adejobi, attempted an explanation. He said: “We work with the state government on this. When we have a test to carry out on any suspect, we liaise with the Ministry of Health.

They have been assisting the command. Any suspect, who tested positive, is usually isolated and handed over for treatment before being committed to the correctional centre. We have some suspects awaiting such a test. Our able Commissioner of Police, Hakeem Odumosu, has discussed the situation with Mr. Governor, who has directed relevant agencies to come up on that without delay and we have been having it nice so far.”

The tension, which had been building between police and officials of NCS, came to a head on February 25. It is believed the violence will escalate if the government continues to keep quiet in the face of mounting challenges facing both agencies.

On the fateful day, about 7am, a female inspector, Yetunde Raimi, attached to Divisional Crime Branch (DCB), left with two suspects for Ifo Magistrates’ Court, Ifo, Ogun State. The suspects were arrested for breaking, entering and stealing. After mention of the case and the charge against the defendants was read, Raimi was issued with a duly stamped and signed remand warrant by the magistrate of Court 5, Ifo, O. M. Awosanya, to remand the defendants at the correctional centre, Ilaro. On getting to Ilaro, about 4pm, the defendants were rejected by the prison officers on duty.

They were said to have asked for a COVID-19 test results, Raimi, who didn’t come with the required results, tried to explain and then threatened to abandon the defendants. The argument snowballed and Raimi was beaten black and blue. She was later rushed to Grace Hospital, Agbado.

A senior policewoman, who didn’t want her name mentioned, said: “The test is free for suspects, but its compulsory, if not, the correctional centres won’t receive the suspect from the police. And then it becomes a police problem. The cost of transporting these suspects for the test is not free.

The result won’t be ready in a day; you have to go there and queue for the test and results. Most police cells are filled up with suspects remanded by courts. My worry is; are police personnel immune against COVID-19? Every policeman and woman’s life is not safe, including those of their family members because they are exposed to danger. Please help the police.”

A senior police officer, who also wished to remain anonymous, expressed anger with the NCS. “The way the NCS is going about the whole thing is wrong! Anytime we take suspects to court for arraignment, the court will state that they should be remanded, but NCS will not follow through, asking police to take the suspects for COVID-19 test.

Is that supposed to be part of police duty? Police duty is to arrest and charge suspects to court, whatever remains should be handled by the courts and the correctional centres. What NCS should have done, is to create an isolation centre, where they’ll keep new inmates until they have done the required COVID-19 tests, not asking police to take suspects for the test.” The Officer in Charge of Lagos State Task Force, Chief Superintendent of Police (CSP) Shola Jejeloye, said people arrested for COVID- 19 violations were kept together.

He said: “We detain them together because they were arrested for not observing social dis- CONTINUED FROM PAGE 23 tancing. But in situations where we have 10 or 20 previously arrested suspects, we keep them in different places. Sometimes, if we assess the situation, we take them for COVID-19 test, but at their own expense.” Asked what happened should a suspect lack the wherewithal to pay for the COVID-19 test, Jejeloye replied: “For suspects who can’t afford the test, we invite their family and explain to them that these people had been exposed to COVID-19. We’ll charge their families to quarantine them for a minimum of three weeks.

They must also write an undertaking. We then released them on bond. We release the detainees to their parents or their guardians.” Jejeloye added that for those arrested during routine raids, the COVID-19 test is mandatory, and it is at the expense of the government. According to him, cells continue to be overcrowded because the COVID-19 test process takes time.

He said: “Those raided from clubs are treated differently from those raided at black spots. You can’t ask miscreants to bring N50,000 for a test, where will they get such money? Such a test will be at the expense of the government, but it won’t be a speedy one because it will pass through a lot of processes.”

The Force Public Relations Officer (FPRO), Frank Mba, said that in the wake of the outbreak of the pandemic, and the subsequent prevention regulation orders by governments at all levels, the IG directed all police to observe personal safety measures and take adequate steps to decongest police cells. Mba noted that Commissioners of Police, their supervisory Zonal Assistant Inspectors General and other heads of police formations were directed to avoid unnecessary arrests and detention of suspects.

He said: “We have been monitoring compliance with these directives. As regards the need for COVID-19 test results, we have a synergy already established and a standard being followed to ensure suspects being transferred from police custody to NCS are screened and certified COVID-19-free.” According to Mba, any policeman, who claims he was asked to pay for the COVID-19 test for his suspect, is being economical with the truth.

He said: “The Force has established synergy with the NCS and different state governments across the federation on the COVID-19 screening and transfer of suspects and accused persons to be committed into their custody. What then do the policemen need the money for, and why should they use their money to pay for the COVID-19 test?

The wellbeing of suspects in police custody anywhere in the country is the responsibility of the Force, and when there is extra-responsibility such as the one imposed on us by the outbreak of the coronavirus, the police leadership finds a legitimate way around it and not leave it to the Investigating Police Officers (IPOs) as alleged.” The FPRO noted that arrest and detention of suspects so far, has been based on only very serious cases such as terrorism, armed robbery, rape, homicide and other serious offences.

He said: “However, where the suspects are arrested for bailable and simple offences, they are usually granted bail without delay. We have been monitoring to ensure full compliance with these directives. In the instance of any violation, we investigate and appropriate disciplinary action follows.

We have an Operational Guideline for the Police and other Law Enforcement Agencies in the enforcement of COVID-19 prevention orders and regulations.” The police image maker also said that two categories of oversights have been emplaced to monitor, evaluate and enforce compliance with the directives, including Police X-squad and Police Provost Office. These offices, “identify and address the excesses of policemen connected with any violation of directives particularly those bordering on the COVID-19 guidelines and protocols”. Mba disclosed that a good number of policemen have been identified and punished for their inactions and breaching of the code of conduct and compliance with these directives.

Ironically, while police continue to disregard and violate COVID-19 protocols, they have continued to arrest civilians, who they claim flouted the same COVID-19 protocols. On February 13, 2021, the Lagos State Police arrested 76 people for such violations.

The Divisional Police Officer (DPO) in charge of Maroko impounded more than 136 vehicles for breaking the midnight to 4am curfew on Lagos Island. A Nigerian comedian, Debo Adebayo, known as Mr. Macaroni and 39 others were arrested on February 13, 2021, for conspiracy, a conduct likely to cause breach of peace and violation of COVID-19 protocols.

Macaroni and others converged on the Lekki Toll Gate plaza to protest the proposed reopening of the tollgate. The tollgate was destroyed during the #EndSARS protests. The tollgate had become symbolic, following beliefs and allegations that youths were killed and injured by soldiers, who opened fire on them while trying to disperse them.

Macaroni and others wanted justice for the victims of the alleged state-sponsored attacks at the toll plaza. Following his arrest at the tollgate by the police, Macaroni and others were stripped, packed into the back of a police patrol van like sardines, with the policemen wilfully negligent of the COVID-19 protocols of social distance and wearing of face masks. Joshua Nyarang’o, a consultant to the World Health Organisation (WHO), an expert in Public Health, from Kenya, said detainees in prisons and police cells are at high risk of contracting the COVID-19 because of their environment and not using protective gears like the mask.

Nyarang’o said that even in prisons and cells, detainees share things like plates, toilets, and cigarettes, which were parts of items supporting the spread of COVID-19. He said: “We can check the spread of the virus by avoiding putting people with minor cases into cells. New detainees should be screened and treated. We should also have an isolation centre in all these places. People with symptoms can be put separately.” The epidemiologist added that the government should find out the cost-effective way of admitting people into cells. He also urged the government to reach a common ground without depriving people of their rights.

Nyarang’o argued that the government should avoid too many visitors to the cells, and must institute screening. In April 2020, the Director of Amnesty International Nigeria, Osai Ojigho, urged the Nigerian authorities to take immediate actions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in correctional and detention centres.

He noted that detainees at police and military facilities across Nigeria were at risk of contracting COVID-19 as they were held in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime stated that exercising social distancing in an often overcrowded space is close to impossibility. It argued that once the virus reaches the inside of a detention facility, controlling it becomes difficult as social distancing options are limited, especially when correctional facilities are overcrowded. Last year, President Muhammadu Buhari instructed that correctional centres should be decongested due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This led to the release of 7,813 inmates. However, the government has been fixated on the NCS, but the same seriousness and focus has not been given to police facilities across the country, leaving many gaps for the spread of the virus. According to the International Drug Policy Consortium (Idpl), the police have a vital role to play in ensuring that police stations, courts and prisons are not overcrowded. It said: “Where strictly necessary, noncustodial measures should be used instead of diversion, such as a warning or bail. Suspend or reduce all arrests and admissions into prisons and other detention facilities, especially for non-violent and minor offences, as well as violation of curfew and ‘lockdown’ orders relating to COVID-19 response measures.” Now that the second wave of the pandemic is still raging in most parts of the world and the likelihood of vaccinating Nigeria’s over 200 million people immediately is slim, there is still need for the police and prison officials to comply with guidelines to mitigate the spread of the virus. It can never be too late to save the lives of citizens who have not fallen prey to the COVID-19 virus.

CONCLUDED

•This report was facilitated by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) under its Free to Share project

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