Activists insist the Lagos state government is incarcerating underaged children over minor offences; the state says it’s untrue.
On a hot, windy Thursday afternoon in May, three gaunt looking men in oversized clothes stood in a dock, a few metres away from a magistrate inside a tiny court room that serves as the Special Court in Alausa, Lagos.
Outside the room, crime suspects – the young and the elderly – and their lawyers discussed freely as the former awaited their turn in the dock.
Inside the court, the three men, their arms folded before then, stared at the bench as the magistrate carefully read out her judgment: “…You are hereby sentenced to 390 days in prison.”
That day, over 100 persons were sentenced to various prison terms for minor environmental offences by the Lagos State Special Offences Court, a court established to prosecute environmental offenders and other related offences in the state.
But the presence of 12 underage children among the convicts has raised concerns about what human rights lawyers say is a continuous dispatch of children to prisons where criminals are kept, by the Lagos State government, contrary to the dictates of the Child Rights Act.
The state government had, however, insisted that no underage person was convicted.
“If they are not minors, let us see them. Present them to the press. We have the facts and we know they are minors,” said Joshua Olufemi of Light Behind Bars, a non governmental organization that fights for the rights of children.
Section 221 of the Child Rights Act says that ‘No child shall be ordered to be imprisoned; subjected to corporal punishment; or subjected to death penalty or have the death penalty recorded against him.”
On June 7, the Prisoners’ Rights Advocacy Initiative, PRAI, a non governmental organization, petitioned the Lagos State Attorney General over the “shocking incidence” of under-aged persons serving prison terms in Kirikiri and Badagry Prisons.
Some of the inmates, imprisoned by the Special Court in Alausa, were males and females aged between 13 and 17 years, according to PRAI.
“We were reliably informed that these children were arrested at Oshodi at about 10 p.m. on their way home after the day’s work and sentenced to 390 days imprisonment by Magistrate Jadesola Adeyemi sitting in Alausa, Ikeja, on the 2nd of May 2013,” Ahmed Adetola-Kazeem, Director, PRAI, stated in the petition.
“We were informed that about 162 persons were sentenced on that day, made up of majorly children and young persons.
“We were also informed that about 64 were remanded at Badagry prison, about 64 were remanded at Kirikiri Medium prison out of which 30 have been transferred to Kirikiri Maximum prison, while 36 are presently serving term at the Kirikiri Female prison,” Mr. Adetola-Kazeem added.
Prior to their sentencing by the magistrate, the group said, the arrested persons were arraigned without a lawyer, no charge was read to them in the language they understood, and they were told to plead guilty as there are dire consequences for doing otherwise.
“The magistrate ordered that the kids be remanded in Kirikiri and Badagry Prisons,” Mr. Adetola-Kazeem continued.
“We visited Kirikiri Female and Maximum Prisons, prisons meant for the worst offences and to our dismay we found young boys and girls who were alleged to have committed obstruction, breach of peace, and being disorderly without proof. This from experience will only breed more hardened criminals who will engage in more heinous crimes after release.”
The group called for an inquiry into the activities of the Lagos State Task Force on Environmental and Special Offences, especially in relation to rights abuses, as well as the immediate release of all the under-aged persons to their guardians or their transfer to a correctional facility.
In a series of correspondences between PRAI and the Lagos State government seen by PREMIUM TIMES, the latter insisted it did not jail under-age prisoners.
The Directorate for Citizens’ Rights and Office of the Public Defender, both of them agencies under the Lagos State Ministry of Justice, stated that it conducted a joint prison visit on June 13th, their second quarterly visit to the prisons for the year.
Responding to PRAI’s demand that all the under-aged persons held in prison custody be released to their families, the Directorate for Citizens’ Rights stated that no under-aged male was in Kirikiri Prisons.
”On arrival at the Kirikiri Maximum Prisons, we forwarded a copy of your (PRAI’s) letter requesting for confirmation if the under listed children were detained in the maximum prison, from the controller of prison who was on ground to attend to us,” said C.O Ibirogba, Director, Directorate for Citizens’ Rights, said in a letter to PRAI, dated 21st June.
”He informed us that he conducted a complete list of the inmates in the prison and called out the names of the boys as a double check and confirmed that they were not detained at the Maximum Prison,” the director added.
The agency, however, stated that a 13 year old inmate at the Kirikiri Female Prison was detained.
”She appears to be a street child but could not give definite information about her relations and address. We have got in touch with Office of the Public Defender to take appropriate steps to ensure her removal from Kirikiri Female Prisons to a correctional Centre,” Ibirogba added.
One week later, the Lagos State Judiciary wrote to PRAI insisting that no under-person was convicted by the Special Court.
The letter, signed by O.A Okunuga, Deputy Chief Registrar (Special Duties) at the High Court of Lagos State, stated that the Chief Judge of the state had sought the comments of the presiding magistrate, Jadesola Adeyemi, over the incident.
”Upon a careful consideration of the complaints in the said petition and the comments of the presiding magistrate, it is not correct that the convicts are under-aged. Rather, their ages range between 18 and 50 years as per the records of the courts,” wrote Mrs. Okunuga.
”Secondly, there is a Human Right Unit office within the premises of the Special Offences Court which gives free legal services to indigent suspects accused of violating environmental sanitation law and other simple offences. Members of the legal profession are also available within the premises.
”On the allegation of remanding such convicts in prison alongside hardened criminals, the magistrate has been warned to desist from sending such convicts to jail terms and should adopt imposition of fines and/or committal to do community service,” she added.
Dissatisfied with Government
Despite the seemingly intervention by the Lagos State government, Mr. Adetola-Kazeem said that they were dissatisfied with the government’s approach and result.
For instance, when the government team visited the prisons, they did not undertake an extensive investigation to ascertain the actual ages of those inmates, according to Mr. Adetola-Kazeem.
Also, they restricted their visit to Kirikiri Prisons, ignoring those who had been dispatched to the Badagry Prisons, he added.
Mr. Adetola-Kazeem also debunked the government’s claim that the prison authorities at Kirikiri informed them that no under-aged boy was detained at the Maximum Prison.
”We called the Deputy Controller of Prison, Mr. Tinuoye, who told us that your assertions were not true,” Mr. Adetola-Kazeem stated in one correspondence with the Lagos State government.
“He (Mr. Tinuoye) said he was busy on the day and could not attend to those who came from your DCR. He confirmed that the boys are still in the prison custody under their control,” Mr. Adetola-Kazeem added.
Last September, Ayotunde Philips, the Lagos State Chief Judge, visited the Kirikiri Prisons – the Maximum, Medium, and Female Prisons – to decongest the facilities by freeing inmates who were either awaiting trial or had not been charged to court.
Mr. Adetola-Kazeem’s expectations that the under-aged persons would be included in the 119 inmates who regained their freedom on that day were dashed.
“The information we had prior to today was that some of them will be released today. But getting here and running through the list, the CJ (Chief Judge) did not forward them,” Mr. Adetola-Kazeem, visibly disappointed as he stood outside the expansive grounds of the Medium Security Prison, said.
“I asked our colleagues from the Ministry of Justice and spoke with the Director of the OPD (Office of the Public Defender) and she said that since they have been sentenced already, she doesn’t have the power to release them,” Mr. Adetola-Kazeem continued.
“So what they can order in the moment is that those be transferred to remand homes,” he added.
Ignorant and Imprisoned
Boldly written on a wall outside the Lagos State Special Offences Court in Alausa is a notice: Every defendant has a right to engage a lawyer of his choice unless he chooses to defend himself in person.
The notice was further translated into Yoruba and Hausa languages.
But most of the underaged inmates who pleaded guilty to their charges did so out of ignorance.
“They were not tried. Even if they were tried, they don’t appreciate what they were sentenced for. And they were not represented by lawyers,” said Mr. Olufemi.
Repeated efforts by PREMIUM TIMES to speak with Omotola Rotimi, Director of OPD, since October were unsuccessful.
The agency’s Public Relations officer, who declined to state his name, said that Mrs. Rotimi had “a very busy schedule” and promised to schedule an interview at the appropriate time.
No interview has been scheduled as at the time of filing this report.
However, in October, the Lagos State government freed 12 underage children who were among the over 100 persons jailed five months earlier for minor environmental offences.
By January 2014, most of the convicted underaged inmates would have concluded their prison terms.
But Mr. Adetola-Kazeem says his organization has remained dogged in pushing, through the courts, for the interpretation of the relevant parts of the Child Rights Act.
“We are pushing for a judicial review of the matter. We’ll do all we can within our power to ensure that they get justice,” Mr. Adetola-Kazeem said.
“Even though they are released tomorrow, we must still appeal to make a statement, because a pardon would have erased whatever had happened.
“But release at any point in time, whether from the prison or the remand home, does not derogate from the fact that they are already convicted,” he added.