By O’star Eze
Barrister Valentine Ikechukwu Ezeh is a Senior State Counsel in the Department of Public Prosecution (DPP), Ministry of Justice, Awka, Anambra State. He speaks with O’star Eze on the prevalence of cult related crimes among youths in the state
What kind of cases do you handle?
Since I joined the ministry, I have been in the department of public prosecution. And the work of the DPP is solely on criminal matters. So, we handle criminal matters. Normally, when criminals are being prosecuted and charged to magistrate court. Their case file is normally transferred to DPP for legal opinion and onward charging of the accused persons to court.
For the length of time you have been handling this, how often do you get criminal matters on your table?
The truth is that almost every week, you must be assigned with a case file. We always have case files. Criminal activities happen often in the state and if files are transmitted regularly by the police, that is if they do their work strict to sense, we would be having many criminal files coming in. I view crime as something that is natural. What we do is just to bring it to the barest minimum. Criminal matters are always there. Many matters are criminal in nature but people do not know until the law catches up with them. But most times, people seek to settle their matters in the police station. They would not allow it to linger to court. It is also one of the factors that lead to the low turn out of case files in the DPP but criminal activities happen regularly. I am speaking from my experience as a liaison officer to the commissioner of police.
What nature of crime is more rampant in the state?
These days in Anambra State, what we normally have these days is cultism and armed robbery, murder cases. Most times, the murder cases are being reduced to cultism. When the suspects reach some agreement at the police station, their case can be reduced to cultism. Because sometimes, people they arrest are not the direct culprits but might have some connection with it. So, these three cases are on the increase in our society now.
Do you think that the rights of suspects are being protected by the police?
When it comes to that, I am not a police man. But, within the ambit of the law, there are some specifications on how criminals should be handled. The law prescribes that if a criminal is being arrested, the normal thing is to caution the person, explain his crime to him/her in the language he will understand and take his confessional statement; that is his voluntary statement, not statement obtained by torture or duress or threat. It must be confessional in nature. Then if there is need to go into more investigation, maybe to arrest other suspects, you can use the suspect to achieve this. And the law provides limited time for them to do this. They are duty bound after all these to charge the suspect to court for remand proceeding. Magistrate will now make a remand order if it is a capital offense or a serious offence like cultism, armed robbery and those accused persons will be remanded to prison. The case file will be transferred to the ministry of justice; department of public prosecution precisely for legal opinion. From the content of the case file which are the findings from police investigation and the statement of the suspect, the DPP will now recommend if the suspect will be charged for more offense or lesser offense. It is the duty of the state counsels to charge the suspect for the proper offense in the high court. But if the offense us within the jurisdiction of the magistrate court; that is if they are minor offenses, the police prosecutor will go ahead with prosecuting the suspect at the magistrate court.
Still on the right of crime suspects, recently two suspects were arrested and paraded in connection with the murder of a high profile member of the Anambra society. But we noticed that these two suspects had gun shot wounds on their legs and the handcuffs on them had given them some serious bruises. How does the law see such?
Being in the system, I know that sometimes while trying to apprehend these criminals, they would try to escape. And most times, they would be armed with dangerous weapons and would attack the police. So, that is why the police would most times shoot them at the leg to neutralize them. And if that is done, they are given adequate treatment to recover. But most times, these criminals die from the bullet wounds. Some cannot bear it and sometimes, the police might miss the target and shoot the suspect at the critical part of their body. And sometimes when all these hardened criminals are arrested, there is what they call discreet investigation. And I don’t know the extent of its validity in our law. But from my experience, I deem the practice necessary because sometimes most of these criminals need to be tortured because they are hardened criminals. Sometimes they would want to obscure the facts. They are very intelligent humans and would try to deceive the interrogators. But the way the statement is obtained matters to the law as it states that it must be confessional and not under duress or torture. But as a liaison officer to the police, I think it is necessary to apply those measure if they want to make any headway. For the murder of a personality like late Frank Igboka, a former member of Anambra State House of Assembly and a President General of a town who was shot fifteen times, you cannot just arrest a suspect and expect him to just divulge information without applying some extra-judicial measures. But coming to the law; strict-to-sense, these people are not meant to be tortured. The truth is that when you look at the way our law goes, if we follow it strict to sense, believe you me, we would be recycling criminals. The police lack the technology to get evidence to convict a criminal in this country. You as a prosecutor need to prove beyond reasonable doubt. The whole proof is on you. The defense counsel will just be there listening to you for a little loophole and any slightest disproof, the suspect will go scot free. There is law maxim that says that it is better for 100 criminals to go scot free than for one innocent person to be punished. So, that innocence is being presumed until the contrary is proved beyond reasonable doubt. That is why there is what we call demand order (production warrant); when a suspect is prevented from seeing his family members or his lawyer, they can get a lawyer to trump up legal dictums against the police and demand that they produce the suspect. And the law stipulates that a suspect should be charged to court within 24 hours for minor offenses and 48 hours for serious offenses. But the truth is that that time frame provided by the law is not enough for the police to conclude their investigation. When you catch a criminal, his accomplices will be on the run and in hiding. Sometimes, you would need to mellow down, wait for like a week and then burst them unawares. So, you find out that the time frame and other conditions provided by the law handicaps the police in their criminal investigation. We just went and copied the English law without having their technology. We lack cameras and forensic science does not exist. You arrest someone with a gun and you would be unable to proof that it was the person that handled the gun because we lack the technology to achieve finger print proof. And that is why you find these crime suspects claiming that the gun was actually planted on them by the police.
Are you then recommending the need to review the law of the country?
Yes, there is a need to improve upon the criminal system. The police need to be trained and they need to bring intelligent graduates into the intelligence department of the police and also provide them with tools and equipment for immediate resolution of criminal matters. Those time it used to take to conclude criminal investigation is not usually the fault of the police. It has not been easy for the police.
You mentioned that the most prevalent crime in Anambra State has been cultism?
Yes, for the past one year and counting, Anambra State has witnessed a lot of cult related killings. Since January, 2018 till now, not less than 58 youths have been killed as a result of cult activities. I am telling you authoritatively, especially in Obosi and Awka. And most times, you find out that most of these people in the cult activities are students. We have not had enough case laws and authorities to attend to cult cases. And sometimes the society, due to the fact that those involved are minors and students, would have pity on them. Pity starts from the police.
So, what do you recommend need to be done in order to reason cult-related killings?
I commend the governor for providing mobility and other assistance to the police. He has been trying. Like in Awka, we have a lot of police motorbikes patrolling everywhere coupled with the ban on motor bike operation in the metropolis. These have helped curtail the activities of the cultists. The cultists hardly move around now. Another thing the police and other security stakeholders need to do is to cooperate with student bodies like the anti-cult and also make sure they put principal officers in charge of such cases. The Special Anti-Cultism Squad in Enugwu-Ukwu needs a virtuous commander. I am not saying that those people there are corrupt but that outfit needs to be toughened. Their case files are empty most of the time without much evidence to convict accused cultists. You hardly see a cultist that goes to prison. Their case file comes but most times, you see they are on bail. And you would be looking at him, he would be a very young man in his late teens or early twenties. But you would not know he had committed a lot of murder. What we don’t know is that people that commit murder in cultism are juveniles; youths in the late teens and early twenties. They kill anyhow without giving it a second thought. But those older members that have survived that early youthful exuberance would want to pipe low. Another thing is that it is good to engage our youths gainfully and positively. You find out that most times, the politicians use them as thugs; give them money and arms during elections and after elections they abandon them. These cultists would now be acting believing they have a boss behind them that would save them if they fall into the hands of the law and when after the election, they no longer get that support, they go haywire. But I believe with orientation and re-orientation in schools, things would be better. Because I can tell you authoritatively that things are going out of hand. And when these cult clashes start, government should find a way to intervene; call some important bodies and talk to them. You might not start by arresting them. When you talk to them and engage them peacefully, they will have a rethink.