On dignity and liberty of citizens

August 13, 2019
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THE provisions of section 34 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 as amended are very explicit with regard to the right of every human person to be treated with some dignity. Hence, the section clearly outlaws the infliction of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment again anybody. Aside from the fact that the court in Uzoukwu-V-Ezeonu II elaborately examined the right to dignity of human person, certain terms were interpreted, thereby throwing some light on the extent to which violations under this section may grand a cause of action. Torture was defined to include mental harassment as well as physical assault; “Inhuman-treatment” means treatment which is devoid of feelings for the suffering of others. Degrading treatment was defined to be the element of lowering societal status, character, value or position of a person, while “slavery and servitude” was interpreted to include lowering somebody to a state of drudgery.  A law was enacted in Nigeria recently to reinforce section 34 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 as amended known as Anti-Torture Act, 2017. From section 1 of the Act, torture is deemed committed when an act by which pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person: a. to obtain information or confession from him or a third person. b. punish him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed. c. intimidate or coerce him or a third person for any reason based on discrimination of any kind.

When such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity, provided it does not include pain or suffering in compliance with lawful sanctions. In section 2(a)(i) of Anti Torture Act 2017, torture includes physical torture, which refer to such as cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment which causes pains, exhaustion, disability or dysfunction of one or more parts of the body like: systematic beatings, head banging, punching, kicking, striking with rifle, butts and jumping on the stomach.  (ii) food deprivation or forcible feeding with spoiled food, animal or human excreta or other food not normally eaten. (iii) electric shocks. (iv) cigarette burning, burning by electrically heated rods, hot oil, acid, by the rubbing of pepper or other chemical substances on mucous membranes, or acid or spices directly on the wounds.  (v) The submersion of the head in water or water polluted with excrement, urine, vomit or blood.

(vi) Being tied or forced to assume fixed and stressful bodily positions. (vii) Rape and sexual abuse, including the insertion of foreign body into sexual organs or rectum or electrical torture of the genitals.(viii) Other forms of sexual abuse. (ix) Mutilation, such as amputation of the essential parts of the body. (x) Dental torture or the forced extraction of the teeth.  The act of torture as stipulated in the Act is so numerous and in fact one can only mention few here. Furthermore, it is imperative to examine parties to infliction of torture. The Act goes on to specifically indicate that:  1. A person who actually participated in the infliction of torture or who is present during the commission of the act. Is liable as the principal.   2. A superior military, police or law enforcement officer or senior government official who issues an order to a lower ranking personnel to torture a victim for whatever purpose is equally liable as the principal. 3. An order from a superior officer or from a superior in office or public authority shall not be invoked as a justification for torture. 4. The immediate commanding officer of the unit concerned of the security or law enforcement agencies is held liable as an accessory to the crime for any act or omission or negligence on his part that may have led to the commission of torture by his subordinates.

In the case of Rasak Osayiande Isenalumhe-V-Joyce Amadin & 3 Ors (2001)1 CHR 458, the Federal High Court Benin in the main issue for determination was: “Whether the rights of the applicant of the applicant to dignity, liberty and movement were grossly violated by the respondents’ physical assault and detention of the applicant.” The applicant, a legal practitioner, had complained about the activities of bus drivers and policemen obstructing access to his office premises. While returning to his office on the 29th of February, 2000, he found 1st and 2nd respondents collecting money from drivers illegally and causing obstruction to his office. The applicant wrote their force numbers, 1st and 2nd respondents descended on the applicant, assaulting him and subjecting him to all sorts of inhuman and degrading treatment in the presence of the crowd. Applicant was subsequently taken to the New Benin police station.  At the New Benin police station, the 3rd respondent took over and assaulted the Applicant charging that a lawyer should not dare to write down his policemen’s numbers. The applicant was detained at the Police Station for about three hours until he was taken out on bail in the night.

It was held that the applicant’s rights to dignity and liberty were violated by the police and this gave the applicant the right to compensation and apology. The court also defined what degrading treatment means. The word “degrading” has been defined to mean “reviling, holding one up to public obloquy; lowering a person in the estimation of the public, exposing to disgrace, dishonour, or contempt.” For a lawyer returning from the court to his office to be pounced upon, kicked and dragged to the police station in the manner described by the applicant is in every sense a deprivation of his dignity and has exposed him to disgrace, ridicule, dishonour or contempt.  It is crucial to note that those who are endowed in our law to carry burden of enforcing our laws such as the police have the responsibility to carry such burden with care and in trust for the citizenry. They must not get intoxicated by the enormous powers made available to them by the law for its cause and in the benefit of the citizens, to molest, harass, intimidate and cage the innocent citizens they are meant to protect.

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Section 35 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 as amended with seven subsections under it guarantees the liberty of the citizens. In subsection 3, there are the rights of the arrested or detained individual to be informed in writing, in the language he understands within 24 hours, the facts and grounds constituting his arrest or detention. In every event where a person is arrested pursuant to a court order or upon suspicion of having committed a criminal offence or to prevent his committing a crime, the arrested or detained person to be taken to court with a reasonable time. And where the person is in custody or not entitled to bail, he should be tried within two months.  But where the person has been released on bail, he must be tried within three months from his date of arrest or detention. And where the trial fails as specified above, the person shall be released conditionally or unconditionally, such release being without prejudice to any proceedings that may be commenced against him subsequently. The provision that any arrested or detained person should be taking to court within a reasonable time as provided in section 35(4) practically shows the length of time a person may be detained. (see the rest on www.tribuneonlineng.com)

Any arrest and detention inconsistent with the above positions of the Laws amount to serious violation of the rights to dignity and personal liberty of the individual as further reiterated in the case of SHUGABA V. MINISTER FOR INTERNAL AFFAIRS. In MITEE V. ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE FEDERATION (2003) 2 CHR 463. It was held that the arrest and detention of the Applicant for a period of 5 days was a clear violation of his fundamental right to personal liberty.

Where the arrest was made on reasonable grounds of the Applicant committing an offence, the period of his detention may not exceed one or two days as provided by section 35 (4) Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 as amended, even though it has been argued that the detention may not exceed seven (7) days as provided under the Magistrate Court Act, which is a subsidiary law to the groundnorm.

In In the case of RASAK OSAYIANDE ISENALUMHE-V-JOYCE AMADIN & 3ORS (Supra). The court held that the brutalization of the Applicant, a legal practitioner, and his subsequent detention till the night of the incident was clearly a violation of his right to liberty. In that case, the court equivocally stated that where the arrest was wrongful or unlawful, i.e where the arresting authority was not acting on reasonable grounds, the arrest and detention, no matter the length of detention (even if for couple of minutes) would be held to be wrongful and a breach of right to liberty which the court would redress.

  • Oluwanisomo, a legal practitioner, lives in Ado Ekiti, Ekiti State.

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