Trial of Boko Haram suspects: Lessons for judiciary
Trial of Boko Haram suspects: Lessons for judiciary
Trial of Boko Haram suspects: Lessons for judiciary
Observers have adjudged the recent trial of 800 Boko Haram suspects held in Wawa Cantonment, New Bussa, Kainji, Niger State, to be fair, but point out areas that need improvement, ADE ADESOMOJU reports

A detention facility, tucked inside Wawa Cantonment, New Bussa, Kainji, in Niger State, for some years, housed hundreds of Boko Haram suspects.

A visitor is greeted with silence on entry into the facility. It seemed ironical that a large number of suspected terrorists – 1,669 – lived within the serene detention camp.

Entering properly, however, the sight of a number of roofless buildings gave one the feeling of approaching a storm-ravaged, abandoned area. Faded paint on the buildings showed that they had seen better days.

Dry and burnt grasses lay on the barracks’ expansive open land – a topographic feature common in most parts of Niger State.

After scaling the checkpoints, one is ushered into the three-storeyed building where the Federal High Court decided the fate of over 800 Boko Haram suspects in five days.

The four courtrooms were office-size, leaving no clear demarcation between the bench and the Bar.

Despite the space shortage, however, the orders that came from court had equal weight with that from any regular court.

In an orderly manner, the inmates were brought out of the detention facility in batches, throughout the five-day-long proceedings.

They were assembled under four canopies, set up in front of the courtrooms.

The defendants sat comfortably under the canopies where they patiently waited for their cases to be called.

Once the court was done with any case, the suspect or suspects involved were promptly returned to the facility.

But the procedure was a bit different on Friday, which was the last day, when the 475 inmates that were released, had their cases determined in one fell swoop.

All of them were dressed in orange-coloured clothes.

They stood in four groups, each group with as many as 102 inmates.

The inmates’ names were listed on the face of the motions ex parte filed before the court by the government, seeking the release of the inmates.

Among the inmates was 21-year-old Mohammed Ahmed, who had lived in the detention facility since he was arrested in 2015, in Geidam, Yobe State, for offences relating to the terror activities of Boko Haram.

Ahmed stood out of the crowd in his orange outfit bearing the inscription, “Anything has beginning will has end.” (sic).

Soldiers, who watch over the facility and the inmates, said many like Ahmed made various designs and inscriptions on their clothes, using broomsticks.

Perhaps, the “beginning” was when the Borno State-born Ahmed was arrested in 2015, and the “end”, when the Federal High Court’s Special Courts, established in the Wawa Cantonment to fast-track the cases of the 1,669 suspects, ordered his release on Friday, February 16, 2018 alongside 475 others.

But although the “end” might have come, as Ahmed had long expected, he and others were not to immediately return home, as the court ordered that they all must be rehabilitated before being re-integrated into the society.

The ex parte motions filed by the Federal Government for the release of the inmates were anchored on Section 35 (4) of the constitution.

Apart from the group of 475 inmates, to which Ahmed belonged, 51 other inmates were also discharged after the court struck out the charges against them, for want of evidence.

According to the Special Adviser to the Attorney General of the Federation on Media and Publicity, Mr. Salihu Isah, the special courts handled 301 cases, some of which had multiple defendants, during the week.

Of all the defendants tried,  205 were convicted of various offences, ranging from professing to be members of Boko Haram, failure to disclose information to law enforcement agencies about some members of the sect, to supporting or participating in the activities of the Boko Haram sect.
Chief of Defence Staff, Gen. Abayomi Olonishakin

The offences were among those prescribed under the Terrorism Prevention (Amendment) Act 2013.

A total of 526 suspects were discharged on the grounds of want of evidence, among others.

Some of the suspects were also discharged because they were either underage or suffering from mental illness.

73 of the inmates, who pleaded not guilty to the charges, had their cases adjourned for full-blown trial, most of which will take place in the Abuja Division of the Federal High Court.

All the convictions were confession-based with the convicts sentenced to between three to 60 years, depending on the severity of the offences involved or the level of remorse shown by the defendants.

Stakeholders, including the Nigerian Bar Association and the National Human Rights Commission, which took part in the week-long proceedings, believed that the court procedure was fair to the defendants.

However, the NBA and the NHRC expressed some concerns which they want addressed before the next phase of the exercise.

One of the 31 prosecutors deployed for the trial, Mr. Shuaibu Labaran, who was also involved in the planning of the exercise, said the trial was a model for the regular courts.

He said, “It has given an impression that delays in criminal trial can be done away with.

“It has given an insight that if technicalities are removed from criminal trials, then Nigeria will go a long way in ensuring that justice is done within the criminal justice system.”

The prosecutor said the successes recorded during the one-week proceedings were sufficient to make a case for the establishment of specialised courts.

“So, that underscores the necessity for establishing specialised courts in this country,” he said.

Asked to comment on how fair the trial was to the defendants, Labaran said, “Certainly the defendants were treated in the fairest way.

“For example, if the prosecution sees any case that does not warrant being pursued in court, the prosecutor is bold to exercise his or her prosecutorial discretion by withdrawing the charge and urging the court to set the defendant free.”

About 50 cases withdrawn by the prosecution and subsequently struck out by the judges fell into that category.

For instance, the prosecution withdrew charges against 17-year-old Ruqayyat Ahmad, despite that she professed to be a Boko Haram member.

The prosecution withdrew the charges on realising that she must have been a minor – only 12 years old – when she was arrested in October 2012.

 “In fact, to tell you how fair the proceedings have been, we have seen cases where defendants pleaded guilty, but the evidence before the court did not support the guilt of the defendant, the judges used their discretion to acquit the defendant,” Labaran added.

Commenting generally on the trial, Labaran said, “On a general note, the trial has been so fair, so transparent, open and the judges have been very firm in ensuring that they observe the rule of law and ensure that parties comply with all the requirements in establishing a case.”

Thirty-two-year-old Mohammed Hussaini, a Chadian brought up in Talwari Village of Borno State, was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment for participating in various activities of Boko Haram in Yobe and Borno states.

The Legal Aid Council, a Federal Government’s organisation, deployed 30 lawyers to defend the suspects.

Director, Criminal Justice, of the Legal Aid Council, Mr. Tunde Ikusagba, representing the Director General of the organisation Mrs. Joy Bob-Manuel, during the exercise, described the trial as “very good”.

According to him, the Legal Aid Council’s lawyers, like the team of prosecutors, gave their best to the defendants.

“Both the prosecution and the defence have been very busy and we have tried our best.”

 But when asked if the trial would have been fairer if it had held in the regular courts, he said, “I can’t say it would have been fairer, but I can say more time would have been burnt.

“You can see the frequency at which we handle cases here. In the regular courts, a case can be adjourned based on technicality for three months and at the next date, the lawyer to a party may not be there and the case keeps going on for a year or two.”

The NHRC deployed eight persons to monitor the proceedings.

 The commission was not part of the previous proceedings that took place in October 2017.

Explaining the rationale behind the commission’s involvement in the second phase of the trial, the leader of the commission’s monitoring team, Mr. Ayinde Yakubu, who is the Director of Protection and Investigations of the NHRC, said the presiding judge, “observed that there was the need for independent observers to monitor the proceedings.”

Reacting to the observation that all the convictions recorded during the week were based on confessional statements of the defendants, Yakubu said such conviction was supported by the Administration of Criminal Justice Act.

 According to him, the law, which came into force in 2015, makes provision for “summary trial” when the defendant pleads guilty.

He said, “The statement made by the defendant and his plea of guilty are enough to carry out what is called summary trial. It is only when the defendant denies the voluntariness of the confession that issue now has to be looked into.”

He commended the court for the provision of interpreters that interpreted the proceedings from English to Hausa/Kanuri and vice-versa as most of the suspects did not understand the language of the court, English.

The 1st Vice-President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Mr. Caleb Dajan, who led the NBA’s team to monitor the trial, was satisfied with the court proceedings but expressed concerns about the pre-trial process.

Dajan, who is also the Chairman of the NBA Human Rights Institute, said, “My observation tells me that it is a free trial; it is a public trial, as you can see the press is here.

“Secondly, all the laws of the land and even international conventions that Nigeria is part of, to a large extent, were complied with.”

On the legality of the court, Danjan said, “This is still Federal High Court. The judges have the instrument of the Chief Judge to be here.”

But he expressed concerns that suspects were kept in detention for too long before being prosecuted.

He said, “Maybe next time, as we will suggest in our report, once people are arrested, they should be tried immediately.

“They don’t have to wait for many months before being tried.”

Like Yakubu, Dajan also observed that the defence lawyers did not spend sufficient time with the suspects.

He said, “The problem with the defence, I would say, is that there was no time.

“There was not enough time for them to study the charges and interact with the defendants.”

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