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Sunday Uliong was arrested for a crime he did not commit, he was detained for the five years that the case lasted.
Sunday Uliong was arrested for a crime he did not commit, he was detained for the five years that the case lasted. He was discharged and acquitted on November 17, 2007 but because of bureaucracy, it was another 12 months before he could be released. In an encounter with Shola O'Neil, he speaks on the high cost paid by the downtrodden in Nigeria for justice and why many innocent persons are languishing in prison.
It is often said that life is full of surprises – some pleasant, most very unpleasant. 31 year old Samson Sunday Uliong had no inkling of what unpleasant bundle of surprises was in store for him on June 12, 2002. If he did, he would have stayed at home or better still, take a bus out of the oil city of Warri for good. But then, if man has premonition of what lays ahead of him, how would the gods be gods?
So, submerged in the ignorance of his pending fate, the then 25-year-old apprentice furniture maker took his bath, got dressed and went to work in a very high spirit and best of mood.
The ‘I-feel-good’ mood was heightened when few hours after he completed the task of sweeping his master’s shop, located at Apala Street, Okumagba Avenue, Warri, a Mitsubish car dropped off three men who said "they were looking for a carpenter to fix their door somewhere around Ekpan and that I should come and fix the door for them. I was very happy; I picked up my tools and jumped into the car with them," Uliong recalled during an exclusive interview with our correspondent on Wednesday.
But the bubble burst for the Oron, Akwa-Ibom State indigene, when after driving in silence for about 10 minutes, one of the three men produced a Nigerian Police ID card from his breast pocket. "He said that a pastor (of the Victory Revival Ministry) reported at the Ekpan Police Station that his church was invaded by some youths with whom he (pastor) had problem and that I am a suspect. They said contrary to my feeling that I was being taken to do a job for which I would make a few naira to buy lunch, that I was being taken to the police station," Uliong recalled as his eyes became mistey by the flashback into hell.
That was the beginning of a nightmare that would last over six years, during which the young man would forget about his dreams, hopes and aspiration and engage in an awesome battle to regain his freedom.
At the station, Uliong met his accuser pastor who appealed to him that "he wanted me to be his main witness in the case he was prosecuting against the people with whom he had problem because my workshop is close to his church. He said I should help him identified two persons one Mercy Ukutela (alias Jokpoone Ukutela and Joseph Ariegbenna."
But the hapless apprentice responded that he neither knew the accused nor have any knowledge of their supposed crime and so could not be his (pastor’s) witness, adding, "I told him I would rather suffer than bear false witness against anybody."
Apparently infuriated by the effrontery of ‘an ordinary apprentice preaching holiness to a ‘man of god’, Uliong alleged that the pastor vowed that he would pay the price for refusing to cooperate with him in the case against his opponents. "There and then they included me as one of the robbery suspects.
"Even the people that were supposed to be my accomplices, I saw them for the first time when we were remanded in custody of the police at Ekpan Police Station, where I remained until June 24, when I was called out of the cell."
In spite of his ordeal and 12 days in police cell, Uliong said he was very happy to be called out of the cell because he thought investigations had been concluded and that he was about to regain his freedom. But he was mistaken as he was handcuffed, thrown into a waiting vehicle and driven to the court, where he was charged for conspiracy to rob, contrary to Section 5(b) and punishable under Section 1(2)(a) of the Robbery and Firearms (Special Provisions) Act. Cap. 398 Volume 22 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 1990.
The charge stated that the two suspects and Uliong (m) on the 30th day of May 2002 at Warri within Warri Judicial Division robbed a Bishop Elijah Urhonigbe of one Sunny Video CD valued at N16,000, one tape recorder valued N13,500 and the sum of N1,426,000. The particulars also stated that at the time of the offence Uliong and others were "armed with gun, cutlass, and axe and did use actual violence on Bishop Urhonigbe (m)".
Unfortunately for Uliong, his other co-accused had well-to-do relatives who quickly arranged fortheir bails shortly after they were arraigned at the Magistrate Court III, Warri. Locked away, without money or anybody to press for his release, Uliong aligned his fate with his co-accused, who secured the services of Chief Victor Otomiewo, a lawyer to fight for their freedom.
On November 4, 2003, nearly 18 months after he was arrested, he was granted bail again but he was unable to get anybody to sign the bond for him because while the battle raged, his heart-broken father had suffered stroke and died shortly afterwards. Thereafter, a very distraught mother of the victim at the high cost of obtaining justice fell seriously ill for which she is yet to recover.
On December 17, five years and six months after he left his workshop, in 2002, the Honourable Justice S A Ehiwario of the High Court of Justice Asaba, the state capital, having heard from T. O Uloho (MRs.) Director for the state and Chief Otomiewo, for the accused persons, adjudged that the "prosecution has failed to establish the case of conspiracy and armed robbery preferred against all the accused persons."
Justice Ehiwario, therefore, went ahead to discharge and acquit them under Section 301(1) of the Criminal procedure law.
While the battle to release him raged, Uliong had completely been forgotten in the Warri Central Prison and could have possibly spent the rest of his life there but for a twist of fate.
Recalling the events, he recalled that one of the warders who was responsible for taking him to court before the case was transferred along with Justice Ehiwario to Asaba left Warri shortly after the transfer.
"One day, the warder came to visit the prison and it was then he saw me and he shouted that ‘ah, are you still here?’ and I said, "yes, I am still here", he then said he saw one of the other accused recently and that he told him that my case had been struck out."
Incidentally, the Chairman of the State Chapter of the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR), Mr. Oghenejabor Ikimi visited the prison a few days later in November, 2008. Uliong said he approached him and narrated his heart-breaking story.
A very unhappy Ikimi, after investigation and confirmation of Uliong’s story, petitioned the Delta State Governor, Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan calling for the institution of an inquest into his plight, saying it smirked of insensitivity for the detainee to remain a day longer after been discharged and acquitted by a competent judge and court.
Speaking in a telephone interview with our correspondent, Ikimi, a lawyer said, Ulong narrated his plight to members of CDHR on last Wednesday (8th day of October, 2008. "He (Uliong) and two others were discharged and acquitted by the aforementioned High Court 3, Asaba on the 17th day of December, 2007 but till date had been held and detained unlawfully by the authorities for no just cause.
"The above testimony was corroborated by prison officials who claimed they had written several letters to the ministry of justice, Asaba to no avail. We however condemn the above illegal acts of both the ministry of justice, Asaba and the Federal Prisons, Warri ."
Ikimi and other members of the CDHR finally secured the release of Uliong on November 2, 2008, one year after he had legally been released by a competent court.
Presenting Uliong to our correspondent on Thursday, Ikimi vowed that the case would not be swept under the carpet, stressing that the fundamental rights of the innocent man must not be allowed to be violated without any incrimination. To this end, he said he was determined to ensure, in line with Section 35 (6) of the Constitution, that a public apology is rendered to him with adequate compensation.
Already, he said, "by next week, we are going to file a N5 million case at against the Federal Attorney General and the Controller of Prison as well as the Deputy Controller of Prison ( Delta State ). This is in line with the constitution that says that in case when a person is unlawfully arrested or detained, the authority concerned must make a public apology and compensate the person whose right has been infringed upon."
Ikimi, who conceded that no amount of money could suffice for the mental and physical torture endured by the victim in the course of his ordeal, however, said the payment of compensation and other prayer to be sought would serve as deterrent to those involved.
Meanwhile, Uliong said he was trying to pick up the pieces of his life, shattered by nearly seven years in prison, together. He said he had been able to secure a place to continue his apprenticeship, adding, "Hopefully, I will be able to complete it this time around."
In spite of his enthusiasm and the joy of being free, he said his life would never be the same again. "I have lost over six years of my life in detention, during that period, I have lost my father, my mother has fallen ill all because of me and for something I did not do. How can I forget this nightmare?"
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