Magnus Eze, Enugu
One of the last actions taken by the immediate past governor of Imo State, Senator Rochas Okorocha before he vacated the Imo Government House, Owerri, on May 28, was granting pardon to Nigeria’s oldest prisoner, Pa Celestine Egbunuche.
Egbunuche, who would be 101 years on August 4 had for over 18 years lived in solitude and hopelessness within the confines of the Enugu Maximum Prison having been on death row with his only son, Paul and another relation, now 88.
Egbunuche’s only surviving daughter told Sunday Sun that the incident happened on April 3, 2000 at Amachara-Owerre Akokwa in Ideato North Local Government Area of Imo State.
The centenarian may have been left off the precinct of the prison, but he is not yet a free man following his precarious health condition coupled with the air of hopelessness beclouding him. The truth is that Pa Egbunuche has no place to lay his head when he is eventually discharged from the hospital at Independence Layout, Enugu, where he was rushed to by the Global Society for Anti-Corruption (GSAC); a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), immediately after he was left off the hook by the prison authorities on Thursday, June 6.
It was gathered that those allegedly behind the ordeal of the Egbunuche’s had instigated the community and demolished their house once they were arrested by the police in 2000 over some suspected trumped up charges.
Facts emerged during the week that they could not appeal the judgment of the Imo State High Court, which sentenced them to death due to poverty and because those that could have assisted them were scared of possible reprisals since the community had been made to believe that they had a hand in the death of a native of the area.
His daughter, Miss Chisom Egbunuche recounted the family’s ordeal since that fateful day when the family house was destroyed by those she referred to as evil and wicked people.
The lady who hawks fruits and other items in Port Harcourt, Rivers State disclosed that her mother died of frustration in Aba, Abia State where they had relocated and stayed with a relation. Her elder sister also died in 2005 while her father and brother were in incarceration.
The JSS 2 school drop-out told Sunday Sun that the pains and frustration were unbearable to the point that she stopped coming to check on her father and brother at the Enugu Prison more than five years ago.
“The pain was too much. In fact, for over five years, I stopped coming to check on them because anytime I visited and saw my people languishing in prison; I was always devastated and would fall sick when I go back to Port Harcourt,” Chisom said.
She, therefore, appealed to the government, public-spirited persons and organisations to come to their aid, lamenting that she was confused as to where to take her aged father to at this point.
She also begged the government to have mercy on her brother, Paul by granting him pardon too to come and take care of their father.
A medical doctor at St. Daniel’s Hospital, where the ex-inmate is receiving treatment; Dr Anumaka Maxwell told Sunday Sun that he was rushed to the hospital with high blood pressure, but with time it has been brought under control.
“We need to do series of tests to ascertain his state, but we are treating him based on physical examination. So far, we’ve seen that he has serious chest congestion. But there is little or no funding to take care of him. In fact, when he came, there was nothing on ground, but we had to make some sacrifices to take him in. At least we need to make sure that he’s in a stable condition before he could be discharged,” Dr Maxwell said.
President of GSAC, Mr. Franklin Ezeona said that though the organization led the campaign for the release of the centenarian, that it did not have the money to fund his rehabilitation.
He regretted that the Imo state Government which granted the old man pardon did not make any arrangements to receive him from the prison and also rehabilitate him.
Ezeona said: “But for the only surviving daughter and our NGO; the man was just granted pardon and abandoned. Even at the moment, the doctors have said that he has serious medical condition while we are not sure of where he would be going after being discharged. So, we are appealing to Governor Emeka Ihedioha and any other persons that can help to do so soonest. This old man needs shelter over his head where he can stay and die in peace”.
An Abuja-based rights lawyer, Ugochukwu Ezekiel who had lent a voice to the call for Pa Egbunuche’s release, has also asked the government not to abandon the man, advising that he be fully rehabilitated.
He noted that Pa Egbunuche’s case has brought to focus the issue of keeping persons over 65 years behind bars.
“I welcome the good news of the release of the 10-year-old prisoner. It is indeed a good development and brings into public discourse, once more, the need to look at our criminal jurisprudence with a view to allowing individuals though convicted of capital offenses to be released on parole if found by the justice department to have shown sufficient remorse and good conduct while in detention without necessarily waiting for the governor’s prerogative of mercy.
“I believe that it’s ripe for different state Houses of Assembly to look at both the substantive and procedural laws of the various states to enable the department of justice, without prejudice to the powers of the governor on prerogative of mercy, work with prison authorities to parole prisoners and release them to serve out their sentence doing community service notwithstanding the nature of the offence. The cardinal point is rehabilitation and not necessarily punishment. I congratulate the government and people of Imo State and other civil rights campaigners who worked diligently to achieve this feat,” Ezekiel said.
The GSAC had in two separate letters dated September 5, 2018, petitioned President Muhammadu Buhari and Okorocha seeking pardon for the inmate to go home and die peacefully.
Recall that our sister title; Daily Sun had in its exclusive report of Wednesday, August 8, last year captioned: “Nigeria’s oldest prisoner clocks 100 in Enugu,” jolted the world with the touching story of the centenarian, who reportedly lost his sight few days after his birthday.
The news went viral on the social media; raising questions to how a centenarian could still be in prison in Nigeria, when in other climes, inmates above 65 years are eligible for either parole or state pardon.