Family raises alarm over detention of 90-yr-old man in prison
By ’TUNDE THOMAS
Ossisa is a quiet agrarian community in Kwale, Ndokwa East Local Government Area of Delta State. Being a largely farming community, squabbles involving land ownership is a common occurrence among the rural folks. It was, therefore, not surprising that sometime in February 2011, some members of Nwagwunobi family and their neighbours were involved in a land dispute.
However, what was initially thought to be a minor disagreement and capable of being resolved by the community leaders festered, and eventually resulted in the warring parties dragging themselves before the police.
At Kwale Police Station where the matter was taken to for possible adjudication, events however took a dramatic turn when one of the parties alleged to be well connected with some political leaders reportedly framed a 90-year-old grandfather, Pa Onyia Nwagunobi who was reported to be the arrowhead of the resistance to the alleged plot by the other party to take over his family’s ancestral farmland.
The nonagenarian was reported to have stoutly rejected all entreaties made to him by the other party to let go of the farmland in exchange for monetary reward. The old man’s resistance was to be his undoing as his opponents were reported to have connived with some security officers to ensure that Pa Nwagwunobi was put out of the way.
Consequently, he was arraigned before a magistrate court in Ossisa on charges of stealing and house breaking on March 3, 2011. The matter was adjourned, while the presiding magistrate, Mr. Charles Amnudo remanded the nonagenarian in Kwale Prison. Two other relations of the grandfather, Anthony and Charles were remanded with him. And since 2011, the nonagenarian and his two relations have been languishing in detention, not knowing when judgment would be delivered.
However, what has become a source of worry and anxiety to the family of the nonagenarian is his continued detention running into almost three years, which has reportedly adversely affected his health.
The family is also at a loss on why the court has not granted the old man bail on liberal terms.
Steve Nwachukwu who spoke on behalf of the family of Pa Onyia Nwagunobi expressed frustration and sadness on the situation.
“We are all now confused. We are worried about Papa’s state of health. Each time we make attempt to secure his bail, the court comes with stringent conditions, which we can’t fulfill. From the look of things, we have realized that somebody is bent on ensuring that Papa remains in detention. He never committed the offences, which he was charged for. He was framed because of his insistence that as our family head, he would not allow anybody, no matter how rich or powerful, to illegally take over what belongs to our family. The old man is dying gradually and he has been a very sad man since his ordeal started,” he declared.
Asked what efforts members of the family have made to get the old man out of prison on bail, he said: “We have been running from pillar to post but to no avail, it was in early June this year that some people advised us to seek legal assistance from human rights lawyers, or Legal Aid Council. Fund has been a serious constraint for us and this is why we have not been able to hire a lawyer in the last three years. But as God would do it for us, at a point we were losing hope, reprieve came our way when last June, we met a team of human rights lawyers who were on a visit to Kwale Prison. We opened up to them, about Papa’s plight, our pains and agony in the struggle to secure liberty for him,” he said.
The encounter with the team led by a Lagos-based human rights activist, Gabriel Giwa-Amu has now raised the hope of the family that the nonagenarian might breath air of freedom very soon.
“When our family met the team, we explained our plight, and the leader of the team, Giwa-Amu said they were in Kwale Prison as part of pro-bono services his chambers offer to indigent prison inmates who are languishing behind the bars as a result of their inability to raise money to hire lawyers to handle their case. Since the lawyer and his team took over, they have taken certain actions which have rekindled our hope that Papa will soon get out of prison on bail while his trial continues.”
Confirming Steve’s claims, Giwa-Amu noted that he was saddened during his encounter with the old man inside the prison.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes when I came face-to-face with this old man. Initially, I thought Steve and other members of the family were exaggerating until I came face-to-face with Pa Nwagwunobi. He was no longer coherent. He looked disheveled. It was obvious that the prison condition had broken him down.
“I took time to hear his story and from what he told me, and personal investigations I later carried out, it was obvious the old man was framed because he had become an obstacle to certain interests. But I have advised him to be of courage. All hope is not lost, we are going to do everything possible to secure bail for him.”
Giwa-Amu expressed shock that a 90-year-old man could be detained in such a condition.
“I’m still in shock. How can you detain a 90-year-old for three years over charges of stealing and housebreaking? Where do you think a frail nonagenarian would have the strength to break into a house? I smell a rat. Again, assuming the old man committed the offence, why not grant him bail on liberal terms? He is spending close to three years in prison without trial now.”
Giwa-Amu appealed to Delta State governor, Dr Emmanuel Uduaghan and the state Attorney-General and Commissioner of Justice to wade into the matter because, “this case is not good for the corporate image of Delta State. I will like justice to be done in this matter. They should not allow this old man to die in prison.”
While describing his trip to Kwale Prison as revealing and shocking, Giwa-Amu said: “The prison is not only congested, but the building which looked like a colonial relic was unfit for human habitation. The inmates live in squalid conditions. Not only that, the prison doesn’t have a vehicle to take detainees to court on days their matters come up for hearing. When I made enquiries from prison authorities, I was told that they used to hire taxicabs, commercial buses, and even at times, commercial motorcycles to take detainees to court. It is sad that our leaders are just paying lip service to prison reforms. We still have a long way to go.”
While saying that prisons are supposed to be reformatory centres, the lawyer said his trips to some prisons across the country revealed that inmates are having harrowing experiences because of their living conditions inside the prison.
“Our leaders should take a trip to prisons in other countries, and they will realize that we, here are still in dark ages. Prisons in many countries today are not only neat and habitable for inmates, but are also centres for learning and acquisition of various skills. It is because of these harsh conditions that make many inmates in Nigerian prisons to die prematurely or suffer various afflictions while being incarcerated.”
Insisting that Pa Nwagwunobi would not be allowed to rot away in prison, the activist said he would be heading to court next week in order to enforce the nonagenarian’s fundamental human rights.