On October 22, 2020, Robert Kpanou, a Beninese who worked as a tile layer in Lagos State, Nigeria, was returning to his home when he was stopped by officers attached to Maroko Police Station for a search during the 2020 nationwide #EndSARS protest.
Kpanou was arrested that evening after the police found in his possession a roll of sachet milk and four canned sardines allegedly stolen from a looted supermarket nearby.
While many Nigerians protested against police brutality in 2020, some hoodlums hijacked the well-conceived agitation to burgle private and public facilities, such as COVID-19 palliative warehouses, supermarkets, and police stations. This crime was widely perpetrated in Lagos.
“After telling the police officers I bought the sachet milk and sardines, they asked me to bring out the receipts but I told them I didn’t have any,” Kpanou told FIJ at Yaba Magistrate Court on September 24.
10 MONTHS IN JAIL WITHOUT TRIAL
The Nigerian law says any suspect should be arraigned within 24 hours of arrest if the court is within a radius of 40 kilometres to the police station, or a period of two days in any other case.
However, Kpanou told FIJ that he, alongside a dozen others arrested for similar charges, was transferred to Area A Command, Lagos Island, popularly called ‘Lion’s Building’, on October 23, without appearing in court.
After spending over a week in a police cell at Lion’s Building, the detainees were finally arraigned at Yaba Magistrate Court on November 3. The court ruled that the suspects be remanded in Kirikiri Prison while awaiting the advice of the Lagos State Director of Public Prosecution.
“Since then, they have not heard my case up till date,” Kpanou lamented, sounding like someone with dashed hope. “I didn’t steal those milk and sardines. Although I told the police I bought them because I was scared, to be honest with you, it was my colleague at work that gave them to me when I visited him after the day’s work at Banana Island.”
“By the way, they never mentioned anything about any crime of burgling a supermarket in court. They said we were the ones that burnt Ajah Police Station, whereas I never joined the protest.”
Asked if he had tried speaking with Felix, who he said gave him the milk and sardine the police found in his possession, Kpanou said he didn’t have his number.
KPATOU, A VICTIM OF NIGERIA’S CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM
According to Section 36, Subsection 5 of the Nigerian Constitution, every person who is charged with a criminal offence shall be presumed innocent until he is proven guilty.
Such a person, under the law, is entitled to a fair trial, but Kpanou’s fundamental human rights have been abused.
Festus Ogun, a human rights activist and lawyer, who is now standing as Kpanou’s counsel, said the prolonged detention without trial or bail exposed Nigeria’s weak criminal justice system.
“Kpanou is a victim of an inefficient justice system,” Ogun said. “The system is fashioned in a way that makes it very hard to get justice. If at the end of the day my client is discharged and acquitted, who will account for the wasted months in detention without trial?”
“There is a fundamental problem with our criminal justice system and I think it is time to interrogate this menace. The kind of system that punishes supposed innocent people like my client is horrible.”
On the charges against Kpanou, Ogun maintained that both the police and the government are not interested in fair prosecution but “malicious charges to punish innocent youths arrested in connection to the #EndSARS protest”.
“The charges against my client are baseless, malicious and cannot stand the test of trial,” he noted. “The truth is that those arrested in connection with the #EndSARS protest are only victims of the wickedness in Nigeria.”
“The state is not interested in serious prosecution. We know the criminals of the Nigerian state. We know the sponsors of Boko Haram insurgents. Those are the ones they should prosecute and not people demanding an end to misgovernance and police brutality.”
“Kpanou was randomly picked on the street just because he is a foreigner who doesn’t understand the terrain. He never even participated in the protest.
“Unlike what the state is attempting to do with illegal detainees, criminal charges cannot be sustained on malice but facts and evidence. Sooner or later, I know justice will be served.”
IS JUSTICE DELAYED JUSTICE DENIED?
After Kpanou had spent several months of in detention without bail, the DPP advised that his case be properly heard on September 24.
Kpanou appeared in Yaba Magistrate Court with high hopes, after 10 months in detention. However, the magistrate was absent. Consequently, the case was moved to December 17. By then, the Beninese would have spent a year and two months in detention.
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