A judge beaten in his own court – Reuben Abati

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GUARDIAN

Friday, June 05, 2009  

 

A judge beaten in his own courtBy Reuben Abati

A RECENT incident reported by The Punch newspaper ought to attract public outrage but in the absence of this in a society that is already shocked beyond further shock, the implications of the developments for the health of society and its moral fibre should not be allowed to pass unremarked. What exactly is wrong with us in this country? Is our country a large mental ward or just another land?

See The Punch, May 30, pp. 3 and 20, an interview titled: “While policemen beat me in court, their senior officers laughed – Wilberforce Meigbope, the magistrate beaten by Lagos policemen for granting suspects bail.” Mr. Wilberforce Meigbope, the Presiding Magistrate of Court 8, Botannical Garden, Ebute Meta, Lagos, alleges in the newspaper interview that on May 19, he was beaten up in his court by policemen, while their senior officers laughed. He had made in the eyes of the police the terrible and unforgivable mistake of granting bail to 25 suspects who had been brought in on a three-count charge of conspiracy, allegation of demanding N15 million and being members of an unlawful society known as the Niger Delta Coastal Security.

These are bailable offences under Nigerian law and the duty of the judex is to apply the law. But the police had insisted on influencing the judge. When he refused, they resorted to self-help. The tragedy of it is that police men are part of the justice administration system with the court of law at the apex. The police have no powers to issue judgements: the role of all players within the justice dispensation system is well outlined. But when policemen begin to behave like thugs in a court of law, then the entire machinery of justice is derailed. The idea of policemen beating judges is preposterous. I guess it points to the continuing failure of Nigeria as a state. Mr Meigbope’s experience had all the elements of the bizzare.

The facts of the case as reported by the Magistrate are as follows: On April 14, the accussed persons had been granted bail, but only one of them was yet to perfect her bail conditions. The police prosecutors had registered their objection to the bail on the grounds that “the matter is serious”. On April 28, the police applied to withdraw the case, but the magistrate refused to grant the application. On May 19 when the case was called again in court, the police requested that the case should be adjourned till July 27 at 12 noon. The magistrate granted both requests. Meanwhile the bail that had been granted by the court on April 14 was still in effect. But as soon as the magistrate moved on to “other matters”, hell broke loose.

The magistrate paints the picture himself: “About 10 minutes later, some lawyers just broke into the proceedings and said that despite the court order, the police had been arresting the 25 accussed persons, because on that day, the lady that was not able to meet her bail condition also came from Kirikiri. After listening to them, I rose and went out. I met with the policemen and said: ‘Please comply with the court order.’ They ignored me. They refused to stop. One of them even told me that he would shoot me. Before I knew what was going on, the accussed persons started jumping down from the two buses which had been hijacked for the purpose of rearresting them. Some jumped through the window and landed on my shoulder, some rushed out through the door. They held my hands and legs and started pleading, ‘Sir, help us, you must help us’. The policemen started punching them against me and in a twinkle of an eye, I felt all manner of blows over my body. In the melee, my shirt was torn and three buttons fell off my suit.”

His Worship was eventually rescued by “judiciary staff.” “All the senior police officers that came to court that day were inside their cars within the court premises. It was raining. They saw the scene but they did not do anything. I believe they gave the order that led to the mayhem….Before I went to the buses that they hijacked, I told them (officers) to talk to their boys to comply with the court order. They did not even do as if they heard me. They were just laughing.”

Commenting further on police behaviour, His Worship says one Inspector Julius Okoedo during the arraignment of the matter kept making noise in court and although the magistrate told him to stay where the lawyers were, the policeman told the magistrate that “he had no right.” Meigbope reports that the Inspector, “the one who called himself a lawyer” had advised him not to grant the suspects bail, but “I refused. To play police game? That means you are already dead…I am here to maintain justice even at the point of death.” For standing firm, Mr. Meigbope now suffers a lot of pains. “Now if I want to sleep at night, my heart would be throbbing. Whether it is broken, I don’t know. Then my shoulder, my hips, my thigh where those people held me and they were beating them and beating me”.

We sympathise with His Worship. His story should be read by all judges and magistrates for it raises not just the obvious issue of the lawlessness of the police, but also the conduct of the judex. The Honourable Magistrate in this instance abandoned his Bench and jumped into the arena with his hands and feet and mouth, and hence he found himself in the undignified position of being assaulted and threatened. He should have stayed on his Bench. And who are those jankara lawyers who rushed in to plead with the magistrate to come out and physically enforce his own order? And he too rushed out of the court, like a militant, to meet with the policemen to tell them ‘please comply with the court order’! And he got beaten in the process, and he lost three buttons and his shirt was torn. He should thank his stars he didn’t lose some teeth.

His Worship could have been shot and the police would have reported the matter as a case of accidental discharge. Strange things happen in the Nigerian magistracy, but this must go down as one of the funniest. The magistrate became a policeman, threatening to enforce his own orders “at the point of death”, and the police whose original duty is to enforce the law became law breakers in court premises. What happened in front of Magistrate Meigbope’s court on May 19 is a complete breakdown of law and order, with His Worship as the protagonist of a sordid drama. It could have been really sad still if the learned Magistrate had also tried to retaliate by hitting a policeman in return. Judges must realise that the best protection that they have is within the province of the law not physical exertion.

When the lawyers came to His Worship, he should have told them to take the appropriate steps to ensure compliance with court order. Those lawyers should know what to do and if they don’t, it is not the duty of the presiding judge to act on their behalf by embarking on a rescue mission. Meigbope is a very articulate man and the interview that he has granted The Punch newspaper is quite entertaining, but he must be told that it is not in the place of judges to behave like village chiefs. He has brought the Bench to great ridicule and he lays himself open to charges of partisanship. He says he has reported the incident to the Lagos State Judiciary. The first response from above should be to take the case away from him, to prevent the absurd situation of further physical conflict in his court in this matter.

In the same interview, Meigbope points out that the Lagos State judiciary can boast of “well certificated judges, experienced and learned judges who are prepared to make sure that justice is done”. Yes, but not through physical involvement, and certainly not through newspaper interviews! Meigbope’s experience confirms the need for the training and retraining of the judex at all levels. Now, he says he will submit the bill for his medical treatment to the state for reimbusement…

But there is no doubt that the police in this case are useless and that their conduct, including the senior officers who laughed as the law was being broken is reprehensible. We have a police force, as Meigbope points out, where many of the officers are lawyers, and yet the police is the leading law-breaking institution in Nigeria. This points to the general collapse of values and standards in the land, and the failure of the police as an institution.When lawyers and judges exchange altercations in the court room and the police insist on over-ruling judges, with the accussed clinging to the trousers of the judge for physical help, it means that our society is lost. The judiciary fails in its function as the last hope of the common man and the reign of impunity is encouraged. We are unfortunately growing a society where there is widespread disregard for the law at all levels.

As I read Meigbope’s interview and the accompanying Lagos State Police PRO’s dismissal of the incident as mere “rumour”, I thought of the riotous behaviour by voters, electoral officials and the police in the recent election in Ekiti State, the alleged execution of suspects in police cells, the number of awaiting trial persons in Nigerian prisons, and the well-reported menace of policemen on Nigerian roads… all in a country where the incumbent President says his primary ambition is to enforce the rule of law.

The Inspector General of Police and the Lagos State Police Commissioner, both of whom are lawyers should take personal interest in Magistrate Meigbope’s case. Who are those policemen who threatened to shoot the learned magistrate? Was there a breakdown of communication on the bail process and why, if so? And is it possible that the accussed persons were being arrested for another offence different from the case already before the court? It is about time the Nigerian Bar Association and the Body of Benchers began to take a keen interest also in cases of this nature: errant lawyers who turn court premises into an arena for combat should have their names struck off the register, be they men of uniform or not. The Nigerian judiciary must also invest in the training of its officers, with special emphasis on decorum.

 

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