A coalition of Civil Societies in Nigeria has called for immediate decongestion of Police cells and correctional centres across the country as the threat of coronavirus intensifies.
The coalition comprising over 50 civil-society groups made the call in a press release issued to newsmen in Awka, in the wake of a recent riot by prisoners in Kaduna correctional centre.
Preliminary investigation had revealed that the protest was sparked by concerns over conditions in the prison and fears by the inmates about possible exposure to COVID-19 infection.
Unconfirmed reports had alleged brutal repression of the riots, torture, injuries and deaths
The CSOs expressed worry that if the Kaduna prison situation is not properly handled, it could have a boomerang effect on other correctional centres, calling for a thorough, impartial and independent investigation into the incident and the immediate release of all persons unlawfully or unnecessarily still held in custody, in particular those held on minor offences.
“We, therefore, call on the Hon. Attorney- General and Minister of Justice, in liaison with State Attorneys- General, to also initiate steps for an audit of Police cells and correctional centres, including juvenile correctional facilities, to decongest them.
“We also call for the immediate provision for all detainees and prisoners, information on the spread of the virus, urgent disinfection and distribution of sanitary materials to all holding facilities, and provision and access to running water at each facility,” they said.
The group also tasked Chief Magistrates in states, in fulfilment of their obligations under the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) 2015, on routine inspection visits to police stations within their jurisdictions.
According to them, this is also in compliance with the 2019 Practice Direction of the Chief Justice of Nigeria on visits to police custody facilities, aimed at ensuring the immediate release of detainees based on established criteria, to decongest the cells and prevent likely infection and spread of COVID-19.
The statement noted with satisfaction, the efforts by the Inspector-General of Police (IGP) to ensure the observance of social distancing at police stations in Nigeria as part of measures to check the spread of COVID-19 at the police stations.
It read; “We note, in particular, the IGP’s directives to State and Zonal commands to avoid unnecessary arrests and detention of persons in police cells except for serious (capital) offences.
“However, we are worried that in some states, people are still held in police cells, some for bailable offences such as misdemeanours. And for suspects held for serious offences such as capital offences, Police are not able to charge them to courts because the courts are currently shut down.
“We also note that most states have no functional testing laboratories and isolation centres, and detainees in urgent need of medical attention in those states can’t access healthcare. These ones are made vulnerable to more dangers than just the likely exposure to the deadly virus.”.
It called on the IGP to order state commissioners and Divisional Police officers to ensure urgent decongestion of cells by ensuring the immediate release of persons still held in custody for minor offences.
“We also advocate that mechanisms be put in place, for effective monitoring of compliance with The IGP’s directives against indiscriminate arrests and detentions and ensure consequences for non-compliance.