Worried by the rise in awaiting trial inmates, which leads to prison congestion in the country, a non-governmental organisation, Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE-Nigeria) has called for a radical constitutional reform that will empower the Nigerian Prisons Service (NPS) to reject inmates when the prisons are above their capacities.
“In addition, Section 293 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) Act, 2015 which provides for a detention time limit of 72 days and Section 35(4, 5) of our 1999 Constitution needs to be reactivated and implemented to eliminate prolong pre-trial detention,” the Executive Director of the organisation, Sylvester T. Uhaa told a press conference in Abuja.
Uhaa also called on the Federal Government to direct the Federal Ministry of Health to direct all public hospitals across the country to treat inmates without asking for payments, just as he asked the Federal Government to take immediate and progressive steps to provide people in prison with quality access to health care.
According to him, CURE-Nigeria had credible information from different prison formations across the country that prison wardens contribute money to take inmates to hospital for treatment because they are no longer receiving budget subversions and public hospitals demand payment before treatment.
“While we call on people of goodwill to assist detainees without lawyers, we want to state categorically that the obligation to provide every detainee with legal aid is the obligation of government,” he said
He also called on the Federal Government to increase its funding to the Legal Aid Council, recruit more lawyers into Legal Aid and support organisations with demonstrated capacity and commitment to legal aid to ensure that every detainee has access to a competent legal counsel.
“We call on the amendment of some sections of the ACJA which violate the basic international and human rights principles and gave some law enforcement officers room to abuse human rights.”
“In particular, we call on the National Assembly (NASS) to initiate an amendment process of Section 293 of ACJA, which empowers law enforcements to apply to a magistrate court that do not have the jurisdiction to try a matter to remand suspects in custody, pending investigation and advice from the Attorney General.”
“Section 293 of the ACJ Act is inconsistent with Section 35 (4) of the 1999 Constitution as amended. While section 35(4, 5) of 1999 Constitution contemplates arraignment and trial, Section 293 of the ACJ Act only contemplates remand, and empowers magistrates to remand suspects for alleged offences they have no jurisdiction over.”
“This section is a threat to the right to personal liberty guaranteed by the 1999 Constitution which states that an alleged offender should be brought before the court within 24 hours or at most within 48 hours for arraignment and trial,” he said.
According to the organisation, “In Nigeria, of the over 72,000 prison population, more than 47,000 are awaiting trial”, which it said does not include hundreds of detainees in police stations and other detention centres.
Uhaa said, the reduction of the the number of pre-trial detainees will address the problem of prison congestion, limit the spread of diseases, reduce poverty, and spur development in the country.
“Most pre-trial detainees are poor, economically and politically marginalized. The poor and powerless lack the money to hire a lawyer, procure bail (or bond), or pay a bribe. Poor and marginalized people also lack the social and political connections and influence that can facilitate pre-trial release in many places. This why most of the pre-trial detainees in Nigeria are poor and marginalised people.
“Compared to sentenced inmates, pre-trial detainees have less access to food, beds, health care, and exercise. While convicted prisoners are often segregated into low, medium, and high-security facilities, a pre-trial detainee charged with minor theft will be confined in the same facilities as someone charged with a serious violent crime”.
According to the organisation, “A reduction in the pre-trial detention population could generate significant savings which governments could use to prevent crime through investment in education and social services”.
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