Imagine waking up in a sparse cell on Christmas morning to the sound of a lock being turned and a heavy steel door being flung open. Imagine jostling with several others to use a dingy space that doubles as a toilet and bathroom, later to put on your prison uniform and file out for a meal unbefitting for Christmas. Envision hearing, from a distance, nostalgic Christmas carols and realising that the only things separating you from sharing in the joy of the season are the concrete perimeter walls.
That is the plight of Henry Azukaeme and seven others, held indefinitely in Kirikiri Maximum Prisons, Apapa, Lagos, for drug-related offences committed in Thailand. For them, prison life is bleak. They would give anything to be home, surrounded by their loved ones on Christmas day.
But as this wish continually transforms into a forlorn dream, Christmas Day has become just like any other on their calendar. And the mere thought of it tears the fabric of their souls to shreds.
Looking dishevelled and dressed in shorts and a faded brown shirt, Azukaeme’s attempt to conceal his troubled countenance failed as he walked towards the reporter.
The initial gaiety, which he displayed years back when he first met with her, was gone. Presently, he feels desolate. The filthy cubicle, which has been his home in the past eight years, he confessed, is closing in on him.
“It’s another Christmas and the reality is sinking in that we will spend another celebration here. The prospect of not spending the next one with my loved ones still breaks my heart,” he said as tears welled in his eyes.
Azukaeme’s case is heart-rending. As a young man, an opportunity to travel to Thailand presented itself and he quickly jumped at it in search of the proverbial greener pasture. With a good knowledge of computer related services, he secured a plush job with an installation company into wireless networks in Thailand.
Unfortunately, Azukaeme was caught on the wrong side of the law and hurled into prison on 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. His hope of embracing freedom and possibly starting a new life dimmed as soon as he set foot in Nigeria.
Going by the treaty, he was to be released in 2016. But three years after, he is still languishing inside the Kirikiri Maximum Prisons. For him presently, freedom appears to be a dying illusion.
The same scenario applies to the other seven inmates, who were at various times arrested and jailed by Thailand authorities on narcotics-related offences. Despite serving a minimum of six years before being repatriated between 2007 and 2012, they are still being held indefinitely by the authorities.
Investigations revealed that previous batches brought in before them regained their freedom between 12 and 18 months of arriving in Nigeria. So far, these ones have suffered devastating losses and derailed career plans due to their continued incarceration. They say the prison authorities are deliberately ignoring their demand, despite promising to investigate their cases and do justice. As the world celebrates today, there were expectations by their families that they would be out of jail celebrating as free men.
These prisoners are; Wasiu Amusan, Napolean Marvelous Mba, Obi Titus, Okpala Kingsley Chukwubike, Kennedy Tanya, Yakubu Yauza. The only female among them, Gloria Ogbonna, jailed in 2005 and repatriated to Nigeria in 2012 and later granted a royal pardon by the Queen of Thailand, is still being held.
Their continued detention, they insist is contrary to the treaty reached between Nigeria and Thailand.
Years after Daily Sun, through two publications, brought the plight of these inmates to the public domain, the authorities have not addressed their cases. The inmates are sad that Nigeria has refused to implement a treaty that clearly stated their entitlement to any reduction of sentences or amnesty granted by the Thai authorities to other prisoners being held under the same circumstance. They are also saddened by the fact that all those arrested in Thailand and who stayed back to serve their terms have been released.
They claimed that, during their families’ latest correspondence with the Thailand Corrections Department, it was confirmed that they were due for release in mid-2016.
In a letter addressed to the Controller-General of the Nigeria Correctional Service, formerly Nigeria Prison Service (NPS), the deportees said the Nigerian embassy in Thailand informed their families that the mission received documents from Thailand Corrections Department detailing the sentence reductions granted by the Thai government in 2012, 2015 and 2016.
His words: “The embassy went further to state that all the documents were duly forwarded to the Nigeria Prison Service through the Foreign Affairs Ministry. The documents also include royal pardons granted the only female inmate among us in 2016. According to the MoU of the treaty under which we were brought back, the procedure for enforcement of sentence after transfer should be governed by laws and procedures of the transferring state. The treaty also states that the receiving state, Nigeria, shall be bound by the legal nature and duration of the sentence as determined by transferring state, Thailand.
“The Nigerian Embassy also told our families that the official bureaucratic procedure is for our custodians, Nigeria Prison Service, to request from Thailand Corrections Department periodic updates concerning our sentences, reduction in terms, amnesties or pardon granted by the government of Thailand. From all indications, we were to have regained our freedom because we are serving sentences imposed by Thailand authorities. We are tired of pleading, complaining and writing petitions.”
The prisoners maintained they were made to understand that they would only be detained for about 12 months for rehabilitation purposes, as was done with previous batches of returnee prisoners, adding that their families raised $1,200 to cover the cost of each prisoner’s flight ticket and other expenses back to Nigeria. The payments, they claimed, were made to the Nigerian Embassy in Thailand and receipts issued for validation.
They further said the treaty between the government of Nigeria and the Kingdom of Thailand on the transfer of offenders and cooperation in the enforcement of penal sentences 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.
In the intervening years after their repatriation, it was discovered that Thailand had granted several remissions and sentence reductions in 2012, 2015 and in 2016. Also, since the treaty was signed, about 493 prisoners deported to Nigeria in six batches between March 2003 and October 2012 have all been granted amnesty.
The inmates said they had written letters to President Muhammadu Buhari, the Senate President, the Minister of Interior, Attorney-General of the Federation, the NPS, Director of Protection and Investigation, National Human Rights Commission and other agencies and individuals. They however, said nothing has been done to address their plight.
They also recalled that even though the Presidential Advisory Committee on Prerogative of Mercy interviewed them in June 2014, recommendation made for their release was never acted upon.
Weary, spent and despondent, the inmates are earnestly pleading for clemency. They said they have conducted themselves responsibly in prison, adding that the NPS had even written letters for clemency on their behalf to the Attorney-General of the Federation.
“Most of us have learnt trades in prison. We are begging for clemency,” Amusan, who has spent about 21 years behind bars, pleaded.