Mary Ekere, a journalist who was arrested in September by the Akwa Ibom environmental task force for taking photos of their officials raiding a shop, has narrated how she was thrown into prison even before she was arraigned in court.
Section 36 of the Nigerian Constitution guarantees citizens’ right to “fair hearing in public” in any criminal matter.
Ms Ekere works with Uyo-based newspaper, The Post.
She spent two nights in the Uyo prison before the case against her was struck out after the intervention of the state governor, Udom Emmanuel.
The journalist said she was beaten up and thrown inside a vehicle, alongside a young man who was also arrested by the task force officials.
“They drove off to the Environmental Court. By the time we got to the Environmental Court, the magistrate had left. This was around 4:00 p.m.
“They took me to their office. We spent a few minutes there and then drove again to the court to check if the magistrate had returned because they had put a call through to her.
“Upon getting there, the magistrate was not still there, so they had to drive out again. This time, straight to the prison and [they] dumped both of us there,” Ms Ekere said in a report published by the human rights organisation, Amnesty International.
The Amnesty report, titled Endangered Voices: Attack on Freedom of Expression in Nigeria, chronicles the attacks on the press in Nigeria since 2015.
Ms Ekere, on the invitation of Amnesty International, flew from Uyo to Abuja to take part in the launch of the report on Monday.
PREMIUM TIMES spoke with her on Tuesday morning, while she was about leaving Abuja, to find out from her what happened, how she was put in jail even when the court did not sit, and where the remand order emanated from.
“I don’t know where (they got it from) or who signed the document (the remand order),” Ms Ekere told PREMIUM TIMES.
She said a “document”, apparently, was handed to the prison officials who did brief documentation before she was taken inside the prison where she spent the rest of her day and night.
The journalist’s arrest and detention attracted outrage from Nigerians and put pressure on the Akwa Ibom government.
She was arraigned in court the following day on charges of assault and obstruction of duties and then granted bail. But the magistrate, Margaret Ekpedoho, left the court without signing the bail document, and the journalist was taken back to the prison for a second night.
Ms Ekere was brought back to the court the next day and the charges against her struck out.
The magistrate, Mrs Ekpedoho, lashed out at the journalist before she was set free.
After striking out the charges, Mrs Ekpedoho appeared to have had a second thought – she called Ms Ekere back and forced her to delete the photos she took of the task force officials.
The shop raided by the task force was filled with expired goods, said the magistrate who questioned the journalist’s rights to take photos of state officials carrying out “enforcement”.
“If we allow this to go on, it means someday a husband and his wife could be making love inside their bedroom, and a journalist would go in to film them,” Mrs Ekpedoho said.
She also commented on the outrage that followed Ms Ekere’s detention in Uyo prison, saying she gave a satisfactory explanation on the matter when she was summoned by the state chief judge.
“I have read all kinds of reports on social media about this case, let me tell you I am not intimidated.
“I was in my house drinking juice, and reading what you people were writing on Facebook. Journalists, I hope you people are there? Go and report it, fire on!” the magistrate said.
A human rights group, the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), Akwa Ibom State, had accused the magistrate, Mrs Ekpedoho, of giving an order via a telephone call for Ms Ekere to be thrown into jail, even when the journalist was not arraigned.
Mrs Ekpedoho, apparently reacting to the CLO’s claim, said the task force sometimes raid places in the night, and that she could come back at any time to sign a remand order. “I can sign a remand order at any time of the day, even if it is in the night,” she said in the courtroom.
PREMIUM TIMES sought the opinion of several lawyers on the possibility of having a Nigerian citizen thrown into jail without arraignment in court.
“That is very odd,” Attah Ochinke, a lawyer in Calabar, Cross River State, told PREMIUM TIMES. “The prison can only accept you on the order of the court.”
Mr Ochinke, a former attorney general of Cross River State, said such could only happen if “they were able to get a magistrate to sign a detention warrant without sitting”. But he said that too would be “indeed odd”.
Another lawyer, Chike Okoye, said Ms Ekere’s story is “most irregular”.
“Prison is a receptacle for persons who have been denied bail or persons who have been convicted or persons whose bail could not be perfected. There is no how you can send someone to prison custody without having arraigned that person. In fact, being in prison shows that there is a commencement of a criminal trial. And criminal trial commences from arraignment,” Mr Okoye said.
Publicity of trial is a constitutional right of every Nigerian citizen, said a Lagos-based human rights lawyer, Inibehe Effiong.
“You cannot hold trial or proceedings in private except under special circumstances…. Even if it is an ex-parte application, this application has to be moved in court.
“If it is actually true that a magistrate gave an order for someone to be remanded without the person being formally arraigned in court and the person being afforded an opportunity to take a plea, that is a serious infraction, that would be serious misconduct,” Mr Effiong said.
Richard Akinnola, a journalist, told PREMIUM TIMES that the “mystery” around Ms Ekere’s story deserves some investigation.
“Perhaps, maybe Uyo NBA may need to step in at this point to investigate what actually transpired because it is a very strange development,” Mr Akinnola said.
The task force that arrested the journalist has been suspended by the Akwa Ibom government.