‘Illegal detention’: Court dismisses journalist’s N110 million suit against minister

A journalist and publisher of Power Steering magazine, Oga Uhia, has lost his N110 million fundamental rights enforcement suit he instituted against the Minister of State for Power, Goddy Jedy-Agba, and police authorities, following his last year’s detention at the instance of the minister.

Uhia was detained by the Force Criminal Investigation Department (FCID) in Abuja for close to one month between October and November last year based on a petition sent to the police by Jedy-Agba.

He alleged in his suit that his arrest and detention were illegal and accused both the minister and the police of violating his rights.

A judge of the Federal Capital Territory High Court in Maitama, Abuja, Peter Affen, in his judgment delivered on February 4, dismissed the suit for lacking in merit.

In a copy of the judgment seen by newsmen on Monday, the judge held that contrary to the applicant’s contention, his detention from October 13, 2020 till November 9, 2020 was backed by remand orders issued by a Senior Magistrate Court, Mararaba Gurku, Nasarawa State, thus, “does not constitute an infraction of his fundamental rights as alleged.”

The judge also held that Jedy-Agba did not run afoul of any law by reporting to the police to investigate the allegations levelled against him in the June 2020 edition of Power Steering magazine complained about by the minister.

Uhia had, through the June 2020 edition of his Power Steering magazine, accused Jedy-Agba of orchestrating the June 2012 Dana Air crash to cause the death of some officials of the Nigeria Nigerian Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) to cover his alleged fraud as then a senior manager at the corporation.

Newsmen reported that Uhia was arrested on October 13, 2020, following a petition dated July 1, 2020 by Jedy-Agba, denying the allegation and requesting an investigation into the allegation by the 73-year-old publisher.

Uhia subsequently, on October 20, 2020, sued the minister and the Nigeria Police Force along with its officials involved in his arrest and detention, accusing them of illegally detaining him from his time of arrest till his arraignment in November, and in the process, violating his right to personal liberty, freedom of movement, privacy, and property.

In his judgment, however, Affen ruled that Jedy-Agba could not be said to have violated the rights of the journalist for lodging a complaint to the police to unravel the veracity or otherwise of the “weighty” allegations levelled against him in the publication.

The judge stated, “While the correctness vel non of the said publication is not in issue in these proceedings, the point to underscore is that a report in the nature of Exhibit JDA 1/NPF 9 alleging that the 1st respondent (Jedy-Agba) was behind the ill-fated Dana Air crash of June 2012 that led to the death of prominent Nigerian citizens in order to cover up his fraud is undoubtedly a weight one imputing the commission of a heinous crime which could constitute an offence under extant laws (notably sections 391 to 396 of the Penal Code) if the same is untrue and unfounded.”

The judge said the minister “had every reasonable and probable cause to lodge a complaint with the 2nd to 6th respondents to launch an investigation with a view to unravelling the veracity or otherwise of the said publication.”

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He added, “It occurs to me that inviting and/or effecting the arrest of the publisher is crucial first step in investigating the 1st respondent’s petition and the applicant ought to demonstrate by credible evidence what the 1st respondent did beyond instructing his lawyer to lodge the petition dated July 1, 2020 (Exhibit JDA1/NPF 1) with the police that constitutes an infraction of his fundamental rights.”

He added that the applicant failed to prove that Jedy-Agba deployed his high and influential position as a serving minister to conspire with the police officers to keep him beyond the time prescribed by law.

Affen also held that the detention of the applicant from October 13 till November 9, 2020 when he was arraigned in court was backed by a court order and thus, was not a violation of his rights.

“Upon a careful and insightful consideration of the peculiar facts and circumstances of the applicant’s arrest detention as alleged in these proceedings, especially against the backdrop of the remand orders issued by the Senior Magistrate Court, Mararaba Gurku, Nasarawa State on October 14, 2020 and October 27, 2020, it would seem that the arrest and detention of the applicant (Mr. Uhia) by the (2nd-6th) respondents from October 13, 2020 till November 9, 2020 when he was formally arraigned in court does not constitute an infraction of his fundamental rights as alleged in these proceedings,” the judge held.

Affen similarly dismissed the plaintiff’s contention that the police lacked the powers to obtain a detention warrant against a suspect without an arraignment.

Quoting Section, 297(1) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, (ACJA), the judge said, “Crucially, an application for remand ‘shall be made ex-parte’ and the powers conferred on the court shall be exercised suo motu or upon application by the person in charge of the prison or other place of custody where the person remanded is detained whether, ‘the suspect remanded is present in court or not.’

“Thus in the light of clear evidence that the Magistrate Court holden at Mararaba Gurku, Nasarawa State issued an order for the applicant’s remand from October 14, 2020, October 27, 2020 and extended same from October 27, 2020 to November 9, 2020, when the applicant (Mr. Uhia) was arraigned in court as aforesaid, the detention of the applicant by the 2nd-6th applicants during the interregnum cannot be said to constitute an infraction of his fundamental human rights alleged in these proceedings,” Affen added.

On the applicant’s claim that his property was illegally seized when arrested by the police, the court ruled that since Uhia had been formally arraigned before the FCT High Court, “he is at liberty to apply to the court for the release of any property that is not relevant to his trial.”

“In the premises of everything that has been said in the foregoing, the present application for enforcement of fundamental right fails, and the same will be and is hereby dismissed,” the court concluded.

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The police had in November 2020 arraigned Uhia on 15 counts of defamation and injurious falsehood.

Efforts by our reporter to find out from Uhia’s lawyer, Alex Oketa, if he would appeal against the judgment, were unsuccessful.

Calls made to his known telephone line failed to connect and a message sent to him had yet to be replied as of the time of filing the report on Monday.

Uhia had in the June 2020 edition of Uhia’s Power Steering Magazine accused the minister of orchestrating the June 2012 Dana Air crash in which some officials of the Nigeria Nigerian Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and some prominent Nigerians died.

He alleged that Jedy-Agba, who was then a senior manager at the NNPC, had orchestrated the crash in order to cover up his alleged fraud which one of the NNPC staff aboard the ill-fated flight had vowed to expose a few days before the crash.

Following the publication, Jedy-Agba briefed his lawyer, Obi Nwakor, who petitioned the police, and Uhia was subsequently arrested on October 13, 2020.

Displeased with his arrest and detention, Uhia, through his lawyer, on October 20, 2020, filed a fundamental rights enforcement suit at the F.C.T High Court alleging that the minister and the police had violated his rights to personal liberty, privacy, property and freedom of movement.

Uhia sued Jedy-Agba as the 1st defendant, while the rest of Michael Ogbizi, a deputy inspector-general of police of the Force Criminal Investigation Department, Abuja, Tahir Usman, an assistant commissioner of police, Gabriel Elaigwu, another assistant commissioner of police, Rojas Elebel, and the Nigeria Police Force, as the 2nd to the 6thdefendants.

He alleged that the police invited him to meet with them on October 15, 2020, but “wrongfully” arrested him two days earlier on October 13, 2020.

He added that they granted him bail on October 14, 2020.

But he said despite meeting the bail conditions on October 15, 2020, the police continued keeping him in their custody beyond the reasonable period prescribed by the constitution without bringing him before a court of law in violation of his fundamental rights to personal liberty and freedom of movement guaranteed under sections 35 and 41 of the constitution.

He added that the police authorities and the officers equally trampled upon his fundamental rights to privacy, and to own property under section 37 and 43 of the Constitution when they searched his name on October 14, 2020 and seized property therefrom without any search warrant.

He urged the court to declare his arrest, detention, and the searching of his house at Gwarinpa, Abuja on October 14, 2020 by the police as violations of his rights.

He also prayed the court to make an order directing the respondents to tender an unreserved apology to him and have it published in two national dailies.

He also asked for a total of N110million dagames for the alleged violation of his rights.

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