Utomwen: My ordeals in police custody
Sometime in August, 2016, we received information bothering on allegations of corrupt enrichment by one Umar Faru, a serving Customs officer, currently posted to Lagos Command.
The allegations held that Faru had deployed “proceeds of corruption” to acquire properties. One of such houses was valued at over N120million and located along Turaki Road, Gadabiyu Gusau, Zamfara State, opposite the residence of Alh. Ummaru Jibo, the Zamfara State Commissioner of Information.
Faru was also alleged to have used his personal account (3034403649) and that of his wife, Maryam Sani Hassan (3057435285), both domiciled with First Bank of Nigeria to carry out his alleged shady deals.
Arising from the preliminary investigations, FreshNEWS officially contacted Faru. When calls put through to his phone were not answered, an SMS was sent to the number (08160012481) on the 19th of August, 2016, offering him an opportunity for fair hearing. Some of the allegations were mentioned in the SMS to enable him respond appropriately. While availing him the opportunity for fair hearing, which will also enable us publish a balanced report, we continued with our quest to verify the allegations.
Faru, however, did not respond. Instead, on the 8th of December, 2016, he sent a couple of WhatsApp messages to my phone threatening that he was going to drag me to court. He also sent some of my pictures to me apparently to threaten me and prove to me that he has been monitoring me. I disregarded the threats.
Arrest and harassment: At about 11.34am on Friday, 13 January 2017, a detachment of four police officers in plain clothes led by one Anthony Enobakhare and ASP Abubakar Iweafeno stormed my office in Garki 2, Abuja. They said they had come to search my office and effect my arrest.
To these, I willingly submitted myself. But I also demanded for the alleged petition conveying the claims of criminal defamation of character and threat to life and property, which I was being accused of. They refused to present the said petition. They thoroughly searched my office for alleged incriminating evidence.
At the end, they confiscated my Laptop, Mobile phone, file and other official documents before whisking me away to the Force Criminal Investigative and Intelligence Department, FCIID in Area 10, Garki, Abuja, for thorough questioning and tutoring on how to practice journalism. They rebuffed my pleas for the opportunity to contact my lawyer before and after my arrest. They insisted that my phone was an exhibit and could no longer be accessible by me.
At the FCIID, I was later allowed to see the said petition with the title: Threat to life and property. In the petition, a counsel writing on behalf of Faru alluded to the fact that we contacted Faru for his response to the allegations against him and that he has not heard from us afterwards. However, he wanted the Police to intervene by bringing me and my organisation, FreshNEWS to books.
There was nothing in the content of the petition that suggested or showed proof of threat to life or property, or of criminal defamation of character as told me by the police given that our inquiries had not been published till date.
But the police insisted that they had to effect my arrest as I didn’t have any right to investigate any allegation against anybody as a journalist without first obtaining their permission. The police also posited that it was criminal for me to be in possession of the account numbers of Faru or any other person without it willingly given to me by the owner. They claimed that “only the Banks are authorised to be the custodians of the account numbers already issued to customers for business transactions”.
They were also very interested in my source of information and attempted to pressure me to disclose same as a pre-condition for my release on bail. I refused to disclose my source. The interventions of officials of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) and the Centre Against Brutality and for the Safety Of Journalists in Africa (CABSOJA) led to my release on bail.
My arrest was unconstitutional: To me, the reasons adduced for my arrest run contrary to the provisions of the 1999 constitution as amended, which states in Section 22 that: “The press, radio, television and other agencies of mass media shall at all time be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this Chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people”.
Similarly, Section 39 (1) provided that every person including the journalist shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference while Section 39 (3a) stated that nothing in the Section shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society for the purpose of preventing the disclosure, of information received in confidence.
Our basis for inquiry was further premised on the provisions of the EFCC Act 2004, which outlaws corrupt enrichments and empowers the Commission to prosecute people living above their known means of livelihood. The agency in Section 7 (1) (b) is empowered to cause investigation to be conducted into the properties of any person if it appears to the Commission that the person’s life style and extent of the properties are not justified by the source of income and Umar Faru is not insulated from the provisions of this Act.
I can situate my arrest by the police on account of the petition by Umar Faru within the following contexts:
- A slap on the spirit and letters of the Constitution and the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act,
- A deliberate attempt by anti-media forces, in connivance with elements in the police, to harass and intimidate me into silence. Their ultimate aim is to gag the media from carrying out its constitutional responsibilities,
- It is also a deliberate attempt to frustrate the anti-corruption efforts of President Muhammadu Buhari whose commitment to rid public offices of corrupt enrichment is evident to all, and who recently gave a boost with the whistle blower policy.
I remain steadfast, unperturbed, undeterred and resolute in carrying out my noble assignment of receiving and dissemination of information in public interest.
Some encouragement: I am encouraged by the show of professionalism by the leadership of the Nigeria Police Force as represented by the Deputy Commissioner of Police, Federal Intelligence Bureau, Abdul Shua’ya Yari, and the AIG, FCIID, Agboola Oshodi Glover. They saw through the fake course and immediately approved my release when the matter was brought to their attention.
It is evident, and heartening to note here that there is a wind of reform and positive change in the mind-set of the top echelon of the police force with regards to the appreciation of the activities of the media. The Inspector General of Police and his top colleagues however, would need to intensify their effort to drill down these reforms and reorientation to their officers and men at the lower level of the ladder.
Desmond Utomwen is the Publisher, FreshNEWS Online Newspaper & Web TV