By Jonathan Ugbal
The ECOWAS Court of Justice on Friday, July 9, 2021 awarded NGN30 million (USD72,922) against the Nigerian Government over its illegal treatment and detention of journalist and rights activist, Agba Jalingo.
The Court in suit number ECW/CCJ/APP/10/20 upheld the prayers of civil society group, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) which had instituted the suit on Mr. Jalingo’s behalf.
The Court was presided over by a three-man panel led by Edward Amoako Asante. Dupe Atoki and Januaria Tavares Silva Moreira Costa were the other members of the panel.
SERAP had sued the Nigerian Government and the Cross River State Government for the use of the Cybercrime (Prohibition, Prevention, etc) Act 2015, Terrorism (Prevention Amendment), 2013 and the Criminal Code Act to unlawfully charge Mr Jalingo before the Federal High Court, Calabar Judicial Division following an article he published in July 2019, alleging that the NGN500 million approved and released by the Cross River State Government for the floating of a State owned Microfinance bank had been diverted.
SERAP in that suit, claimed that the alleged harassments, intimidation, arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, unfair prosecution and imprisonment of Mr. Jalingo and other journalists exercising their rights to freedom of expression and information and media freedom violated all the international and regional treaties on human rights to which Nigeria is a State Party.
SERAP prayed the Court for an order directing the defendants to drop all charges against Mr. Jalingo and set him free “unconditionally.” SERAP also sought an order “directing the defendants and/or their agents in Nigeria to provide effective remedies and reparation, including adequate compensation, restitution, satisfaction or guarantees of non-repetition that the Honourable Court may deem fit to grant to Mr. Jalingo for being unfairly prosecuted by the Respondents.”
The Court had, at an earlier date, struck out the second defendant, Cross River State Government, from the suit, for not being a proper defendant before the court, and a signatory of the Revised Treaty of ECOWAS. The Federal Republic of Nigeria however, is a Member State of ECOWAS and a signatory to the ECOWAS Revised Treaty,
However, the Federal Government through its counsel, Chijioke Amadi, filed and adopted a preliminary objection arguing that the person on whose behalf/interest the applicant instituted this suit has been granted bail and is currently being prosecuted at a competent municipal/domestic court on criminal allegations bordering on treason and terrorism.
The defendant further argued that the applicant failed to disclose a reasonable cause of action to be entitled to the prayers sought nor discharge the evidential burden placed on him in proof of his case and therefore asked the Court to dismiss the suit.
But, the Court held that the detention and treatment meted out on Jalingo by agents of the first defendant were “illegal,” and directed the first defendant to pay him NGN30 million (USD USD72,922).
It will be recalled that Mr. Jalingo who is on bail after spending 179 days in detention between August 2019 and February 2020 had, while giving his oral testimony at a virtual sitting of the Court on April 6, 2021 recounted his ordeal when security officials broke into his house and arrested him in Lagos on August 22, 2019 before embarking on a tortuous 26 hour journey by road to Calabar, the Cross River State capital.
He was led in evidence by SERAP’s Kolawale Oluwadare and averred that he was not allowed to dismount from the vehicle, and on arrival, was detained at a black site facility run by the Anti-Cultism and Kidnapping Squad of the Cross River State Command of the Nigerian Police Force for 34 days.
He was arraigned before Justice Simon Amobeda of the Calabar Division of the Federal High Court for amongst other things, conspiring with fellow journalist, human rights activist and SaharaReporters publisher, Omoyele Sowore, to cause terrorism and for allegedly meeting with cultists to instigate violence and acts of terrorism against Cross River State Governor, Ben Ayade, offences punishable with life imprisonment under sections 17 & 1 (2)(a) & (b) of the Terrorism (Prevention Amendment) Act, 2013.
He was denied bail twice by Justice Simon Amobeda who later recused himself after a leaked audio suggested he may have been compromised and was admitted to bail by Justice Sule Shuaibu.
Amnesty International had on November 20, 2019 declared Mr. Jalingo alongside Mr. Sowore and Olawale Bakare as prisoners of conscience. Shortly after, the #OneFreePressCoalition listed him at number 9 of 10 ‘Most Urgent’ cases of threats to press freedom around the world.
Reacting to the judgment, a member of Mr. Jalingo’s legal team, Martin Obono Esq said there were lessons for the Nigerian Government to learn and a win for the civic space.
“The judgment from the (ECOWAS) Court is a big plus and the Judge stated it clearly that the treatment meted out on Jalingo was against the anti torture act and the United Nations declaration on torture and treatment of persons. How do you tie someone to a refrigerator for hours? The Nigerian Police especially has to learn from that,” Obono said.