‘After serving jail terms in Thailand, govt has forgotten us in Kirikiri’
•We’ll investigate their cases and do justice – NPS
By Tessy Igomu
Dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, Kingsley Chikwubuike Okpala looked dishevelled and troubled.
As he stared at the stream of human traffic and watched the open display of emotion by family members being welcomed by their loved ones confined in the Kirikiri Maximum Prison, Apapa, Lagos State, he looked straight into the reporter’s eyes and shook his head, even as he managed to stay hopeful.
As a young man, an opportunity to travel to Thailand presented itself and Okpala quickly jumped at it. His travelling papers were perfected and, with the support of his family, he left for the proverbial greener pasture on Thai soil.
Unfortunately for the young man, things went awry. He was caught on the wrong side of the law and hurled into prison on account of drug-related charges.
Having served six years in a Thai prison, he was repatriated to Nigeria under a treaty to serve out his term in the country, after which he would be released to reunite with his family.
Sadly, Okpala’s hope of embracing freedom and possibly start a new life is dimming by the day. Going by the treaty, he was to be released in 2016. But Okpala is still languishing inside the Kirikiri Maximum Prisons.
Henry Azukaeme’s case is no different. Having a good knowledge of web designing, networking and other computer services gave him an edge, as he immediately landed a good job with an installation company that was into wireless networks in Thailand. However, he was thrown into jail for some drug-related offences soon after. He was also repatriated to Nigeria to serve out his term. Today, he should have been out, but he remains in jail. For Azukaeme, freedom appears to be a mirage, as his dream of one day walking out a free man seems a dying illusion.
These two men are not alone in this predicament. Thirteen other inmates, who were at various times arrested and jailed by Thailand authorities on narcotics-related offences and who had served a minimum of six years in that country before being repatriated between 2007 and 2012, are still being held indefinitely by the Nigeria Prison Service (NPS). Previous batches brought in before them regained their freedom between 12 and 18 months of arriving in Nigeria. So far, these inmates have suffered devastating losses and derailed career plans due to their continued incarceration.
With despair and despondency setting in, these aggrieved inmates have described their continued detention as against the spirit and intent of section 35, sub-section 1, of the 1999 Constitution, which guarantees them right to personal liberty.
A cry for help
Some of the inmates who are still in prison include George Chibuike Onyema, Napoleon Marvellous Mba, Wasiu Amusan, Obi Titus Ibezim, Derrick Addai, Julius Azubike, Clement Omagbai, Henry Azukaeme, Ifeanyi Okafor, Okpala Kingsley Chukwubike, Kennedy Tanya and Yahuza Yakubu Mohammed. The only woman among them, Mrs. Gloria Ogbonna, who was arrested in 2005 and had spent seven years in a Thailand prison before repatriation in 2012, is still serving an unspecified prison sentence in Kirikiri Prison.
Another inmate, Amusan, who had spent 19 years behind bars, after his arrest in 1998, expressed sadness over the Nigerian justice system. He noted that, after spending nine years in a Thai prison, he was happy about the prospect of being brought home in 2007. He was also optimistic that he stood a better chance of regaining his freedom faster. Now, ill health has sapped him of his youthful vigour, even as age is no longer on his side. And he wonders daily how long he would have to wait in jail before he breathes the air of freedom once again.
Amusan, while lamenting the indifference of NPS authorities towards their pedicament, declared that their families have been responsible for their welfare and upkeep.
Despite resigning themselves to fate, these inmates believe strongly that President Muhammadu Buhari, the Nigerian Senate and all those that could ensure their freedom would look on them with mercy.
Unfulfilled treaty terms
Azukaeme, speaking with Daily Sun on behalf of the other inmates, noted that, before their repatriation, they were made to understand that they would only be detained for about 12 months for rehabilitation purposes, as had been done with previous batches of returnee prisoners. It was based on this that their families rallied round to individually raise $1,200 to cover the cost of their ticket and other expenses back to Nigeria. The payments, he said, were made to the Nigerian embassy in Thailand and receipts were issued for validation. The treaty clearly stated that they would be entitled to any reduction of sentences or amnesty granted by the Thai authorities. Azukaeme said it was rather unfortunate that the treaty was never respected or implemented by Nigeria.
Shedding more light on the agreement on exchange of prisoners, tagged “Treaty Between the Government of Nigeria and the Government of the Kingdom of Thailand on the Transfer of Offenders and Co-operation in the Enforcement of Penal Sentences,” Azukaeme said it became effective on January 11, 2002, and was signed by Mr. Ademola Adenrele, Nigerian Ambassador Plenipotentiary to Thailand and Thailand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Surakiart Sathiarathai.
He noted that, in the intervening years after their repatriation, Thailand granted several remissions and sentence reductions in the following sequence: 2012 – queens birthday, 2015 – prince’s birthday, and 2016 – crowning of new king. With the remissions, their case-mates and fellow Nigerians, who declined to return home, were released.
He said it was more saddening to note that the only female among them, Gloria Ogbonna, who was granted a royal pardon in Thailand in 2015, was still being held in Kirikiri Prisons.
Azukaeme further said that, since the treaty was signed, about 493 prisoners deported in six batches between March 2003 and October 2012 have all been granted amnesty.
He explained further that former President Olusegun Obasanjo and late President Umaru Yar’Adua granted amnesty in batches to the 450 deportees through the Presidential Amnesty Programme, adding that, by the time another set was sent to Yar’Adua for consideration, the former President had passed on.
He noted that the 30 inmates later regained freedom on November 28, 2011, through the intervention of a lawyer, Mr. Adewale Fadipe, who applied to court for their release.
The inmate lamented that, unknown to the world, about 13 of them, who were mostly innocent of the crime they were accused of, have remained behind bars. He said aside from being treated unfairly since their repatriation, the inmates have suffered morally, materially, emotionally and psychologically, while some of them have lost loved ones.
For Okpala, it was unfortunate that the NPS reneged on the treaty between Nigeria and Thailand, as it puts an integrity question on the country.
He maintained that, contrary to reasons put forward by the NPS, among them being that Thai authorities protested against early release of inmates, the Asian country only sought clarification on the Nigerian government’s policy towards repatriated inmates.
According to him: “Some of the inmates released from Thailand prisons have even visited us here. We have complained several times to the prison headquarters and even some royal fathers including HRM, Oba Adedapo Tejuosho, who has appealed to the previous and present leadership, yet nothing has been done. The Nigeria Prison Service seems intent on frustrating any effort we make towards regaining our freedom. They always claim that the Thai authorities protested against early release of repatriated Nigerians because some of those earlier released returned to Thailand to commit same offences.
“While it might be true that a few of the released inmates went back to Thailand because they have wives and children there, the main problem was that Nigeria’s foreign mission did not provide answers to two questions earlier asked by Thai authorities in a letter sent to Nigeria’s foreign ministry through the Nigerian embassy in 2010.
“The questions were how Nigeria rehabilitates inmates repatriated and how they treat cases of those who return to Thailand and commit the same offence. These questions were never answered and the embassy said the foreign ministry never replied the letter.
“The Nigerian prison authorities always claim that it is Thailand that sentenced us, but whenever we raise the issue of remissions/reduction of sentences approved by Thailand, they will turn round to say that we don’t have any business with Thailand anymore. It is our understanding that we are serving sentences imposed by Thailand authorities, but if we are not entitled to amnesty/pardon and sentence reduction by Thailand government, then whose sentences are we serving? We are at this stage confused and our families have almost given up on us.”
Unanswered appeal letters
The inmates have sent many letters to President Buhari, some of which were made available to the reporter. They appealed to the President to, as a matter of urgency, mandate the NPS to stop their unjustified incarceration and honour the agreement signed with Thailand before their repatriation. They maintained that they had all served the mandatory six to nine years in Thailand prisons before they were herded back home.
The inmates also noted that their appeals to the Interior Ministry, Attorney-General of the Federation and the NPS had been futile, adding that they were elated at a point that their matter was given a mention on the floor of the Senate by the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Human Rights.
A letter, titled “Request for Pardon,” was sent through the inmates’ solicitor, Kolapo Gbadamosi and Associates, to President Buhari, on February 12, 2016, through the Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of the Federation. In the letter, the inmates raised several issues bordering on their continued incarceration.
They stressed that, according to the treaty, they were meant to serve one-third of the remaining sentences imposed by the Thai government, and the remissions and deductions were given based on their good behaviour and conduct while in Thai prisons. They then wondered why they were still being held despite conducting themselves respectfully in detention.
In a follow-up letter addressed to the Director of Protection and Investigation, National Human Rights Commission, Maitama, Abuja, dated May 18, 2017, the inmates noted that immediately after they were brought back to Nigeria, the terms of their confinement changed, with the prison authorities telling them that they were repatriated to serve out their sentences as stated in the treaty.
According to them: “We made several efforts to reach the Thailand Corrections Department only to learn that details of our sentence reductions had been transmitted to the Nigerian embassy in Thailand. We then got in touch with the consular at the Nigerian embassy, and he told us authoritatively that the embassy compiled all the details and sent them to NPS, through the foreign affairs ministry since January 2017.
“We have been treated very unfairly, first by the false promise of early release, then our families paying $1,200 for expenses, being dumped and forgotten in prison by Nigerian Prisons Service, refusal to effect sentence reductions granted by the Thai government, even though we are serving sentences imposed by the Thai government; and all these for a treaty that has not been ratified and domesticated.
“We are long overdue for release and our casemates have all been freed. We have written several times to the prison authorities through the Kirikiri Maximum Security Prisons authorities. We have also written to the Attorney-General of the Federation, but till this moment nothing has been done or said on our matter. We are, therefore, pleading for your intervention to secure our release.”
In a letter to the Senate President, the inmates pleaded for the National Assembly’s intervention and the need to save them from unjustified incarceration. And in another letter addressed to the Minister of Foreign Affairs by their legal representative, tagged “Request for the Instrument or Documentation Relating to State Pardon and or Amnesty from the Department of Corrections of the Kingdom of Thailand,” the inmates urged the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs to make a formal request to the Department of Corrections, Thailand, for the documentation that would further aid their release.
According to the letter, the request became imperative in order to facilitate their immediate release despite the state pardon and amnesty granted them by the Thai government.
“The Thai authorities have, however, refused to release the amnesty instrument to our client. According to them, the Federal Government of Nigeria, through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, will have to make a formal request for the said instrument or documentation relating to pardon by applying to the Department of Corrections of the Kingdom of Thailand through the Nigeria Mission in Thailand,” the letter stated.
In June 2014, the inmates said they saw a glimmer of hope when the Presidential Advisory Committee on Prerogative of Mercy came and interviewed them. They claimed that a recommendation was made for their release but, thereafter, nothing happened.
The inmates maintained that their prolonged stay in detention runs contrary to Section 22, sub-sections 2 and 3, of the NDLEA Act, Cap N30, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2014, which provides that, “Any Nigerian citizen found guilty in any foreign country of an offence involving narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances and who thereby brings the name of Nigeria into disrepute shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable to imprisonment for a term of five years without an option of fine and his assets and properties shall be liable to forfeiture.”
They also argued that their continued detention was against Section 35(1) of the 1999 Constitution, which provides that: “a person who is charged with an offence and who has been detained in lawful custody awaiting trial shall not continue to be kept in such detention for a period longer than the maximum period of imprisonment prescribed for the offence.”
The inmates stressed that it was really sad that their continued incarceration was not based on any procedure or law in Nigeria, but was rather based on the terms of a treaty that had not been domesticated in Nigeria and was not known to the laws of the land.
Right now, the inmates have become weary and are earnestly pleading for clemency. They claimed that, since their repatriation, they have conducted themselves responsibly and respectfully, and this prompted the NPS to officially write letters for clemency to the Attorney-General of the Federation, copying the minister of special duties.
According to Azukaeme, the letters are referenced: i. NPS-Zone A/CONT.5/Vol. iv/287 and ii. NPS–Zone A/CONT.5/Vol. iv/288.
“It is on these grounds that we are pleading with Your Excellency to temper justice with mercy and give us another chance. It is further believed that in this era where prisons are being decongested, pardoning us will be in the right direction, as we are not hardened criminals.
“We have suffered and learnt lessons. Most of us have learnt trades and arts behind bars, which will make us useful to the society in general and to each of us in particular. We are crying, pleading and craving your pardon and amnesty like our mates who enjoyed same during the regime of President Yar’Adua (late).”
Nigeria Prisons Service explains
In his reaction to the issue, the national public relations officer, NPS, Frances Enabora, maintained that no inmate would be unduly kept in any Nigerian prison when they should be set free.
He sought to know if a copy of the treaty was sent to the reporter and when answered in the negative, he said that it would have helped the service to verify if the treaty was in existence.
He, however, noted that he couldn’t give an accurate response, as he did not have their warrant.
“I need to know when they were sentenced, for which offence, date of the sentencing, details of the treaty and what is obtainable in the clime, Thailand, where the offence was committed. I don’t think it is in all climes that one-third imprisonment or remission is given to prisoners. In some climes, a prisoner is made to serve the entire term that is imposed by the court,” he said.
Speaking further about remission, he noted that the NPS, like others worldwide, has its operational guidelines that spell out the terms of imprisonment imposed on prisoners.
“Remission can be granted on the condition that the prisoner behaves well, exhibits good conduct and is loyal to the authorities. If, for instance, a prisoner is sentenced to three years imprisonment, the law allows us to release the prisoner after serving two years. The other one year could be forfeited based on good conduct.
“This remission is based on rules of engagement or status. However, it is important to know the condition of their imprisonment over there, and then know when they were sentenced and if the treaty is transferable. I need to understand the platform on which the two prison systems operate, as each country has its own operational guidelines,” Enabora said.
The spokesman further explained that the warrant that usually comes from the court with a prisoner being transferred usually does not bear remission, if any is given.
It is at the prison level that what is known as computation of sentence is done by the warden at the back of the warrant.
He also noted that, when a prisoner is repatriated, he is meant to serve the term of the sentencing country, while the agreement would only allow for the prisoner to spend the remaining term in their home country.
Enabora promised to obtain more details from the officer in charge of Kirikiri Prisons, in order to have a better knowledge of the matter as well as ensure liaison between the NPS and the Embassy of Thailand. This, he said, would give him a better understanding of the issues at hand and ensure that no one is unduly kept behind bars.