Rivers State — The case of the four murdered University of Port Harcourt’s (UNIPORT) students makes all the headlines again as the trial of the culprits resumes. On October 5, 2012, the four victims — Chiadika Biringa (20; of Theatre Arts Department), Ugonna Obuzor (18; Geology), Mike Toku Lloyd (20; Civil Engineering Department), all in second year studies, and Tekenah Elkanah, (21; Diploma (Technical)) — were subjected to the ‘jungle justice’ of an angry mob and were ultimately set ablaze.
The unspeakable act, which took place in Omuokiri Aluu in Ikwerre Local Government Area, caused public disgust and condemnation of global proportion.
The young men were accused of stealing — and claims were later rejected by the police.
Below is a timeline of the painful, rocky investigation and trial processes which have not been easy, with the widespread notion of aiding and abetting on the crime by the police.
October 16, following media testimony by a sister to Tekenah, one of the victims, the police reportedly dismissed Sergeant Lucky Orji for alleged role in the murder.
Police investigation reportedly corroborated Tekenah sister’s claim that Sergeant Orji was present at the scene of the murder and actually encouraged the mob to ‘deal with’ the victims. Reports say the dismissed policeman was to be charged to court alongside 13 other suspects.
The added challenge was the task of apprehending the needed suspects and adequate police investigation to support prosecution.
October 17th 2012, twelve days after the murder, a Magistrate’s Court sitting in Port Harcourt was first to remand 13 suspects brought before it for allegedly being part of a mob that tortured the four casualties.
The suspects were in handcuffs and chains when they appeared in court on five-count of conspiracy and murder. Their Charge Sheet, PMC/2009C/2012, partly read, “That you conspired among yourselves to commit felony to wit: murder and thereby committed an offence punishable under Section 324 of the criminal code Cap 37 and Section 319 of the criminal code Cap 37 volume III laws of Rivers State of Nigeria 1999.”
Presiding Magistrate Emmanuel Woke affirmed the court had no jurisdiction to hear the matter. Woke immediately transfered the case to the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) for legal advice and subsequent arraignment in a High Court. The court also advised the suspects to seek bail from a High Court.
Chief Superintendent of Police, Henry Njoku, stood as counsel for the prosecution while A.A. Finebone appeared for the 1st Accused and village head of Aluu, Alhaji Hassan Walewa Austine Ojekudo.
Others from the Nigeria Bar Association and the Human Rights Commission were in court as concerned parties for what they termed close monitoring of the case to ensure that the law takes it proper course without hounding innocent persons. This followed concerns of indiscriminate police arrests over the matter. The court threafter adjourned till December 20, 2012.
When the court resumed December 20th, three more suspects were arraigned. 23-year-old Finebone Jeffrey, Joshua Ekpe, 27 and Abang Cyril, 27, were brought under a five-count charge of conspiracy of murder.
“You and others at large on October 5, 2012, at Omuokiri, Aluu community in the Port Harcourt Magisterial District, did conspire amongst yourselves to commit felony to wit: murder and thereby committed an offence punishable under Section 324 of the Criminal Code Cap 37 laws of Rivers State, 1999,” the charges read in part.
As with the first thirteen suspects, their pleas were rejected with Chief Magistrate Woke restating that his court lacked jurisdiction to entertain the case before adjourning till February 28, 2013.
At this tone of proceeding, the Human Rights Committee of the Port Harcourt NBA applied for case file of the suspects. Chairman of the Committee, Austin Ojeukeudo said that the “association wants to ensure that there was no miscarriage of justice in the trial.” The court ordered release of the demanded documents to the NBA.
At the resumed hearing, the prosecutor said he was yet to receive any advice on the matter from the DPP to whom the case file was referred.
By February 28, 2013, suspects had risen to 18. Magistrate Woke discharged seven of the accused persons for want of evidence of complicity in the crime after reading the advice from DPP. Those discharged include the only female accused person, Cynthia Chinwo, George Nwadei, Ekpe Daniel, Gabriel Ochi, Endurance Edet, Lucky Agwurum, and Finebone Jeffrey, aka Soso.
The chief magistrate affirmed ,”It is a trite law that suspicion, no matter how strong, cannot take place of legal proof without concrete evidence to substantiate it, and as such, they were victims of circumstance, therefore, charging and prosecuting them will be an exercise in futility”.
The magistrate further said there were seven other suspects who had been arrested, granted police bail, but were yet to be charged to court on the matter. He said no case had also been established against them and ordered that they be discharged too.
“Your original case file will be retained to enable us file information with proof of evidence for the avoidance of doubt, against Lawal Segun, ex-Sergeant Lucky Orji, Ikechukwu Louis Amadi, aka Kapoon, David Chinasa Ogbada, Abiodun Yusuf, Joshua Ekpe, Abang Cyril, Alhaji Hassan Welewa, Okoghiroh Endurance, Ozioma Abajuo and Chigozie Evans Samuel in the Port Harcourt High Court,” he said
Many keen watchers of the case consequently raised the question whether those so freed by the Magistrate Court were actually innocent or were beneficiaries of police’s poor prosecutorial commitment and competence.
The first hearing before the High Court on April 25, 2013 for the 11 remaining suspects suffered a setback when the Presiding Judge, Justice T.S. Orji declined jurisdiction to adjudicate on the matter. The DPP led by I.Otorubio and other lawyers had, that day, announced their appearances for the matter, but the Judge declared, “I am related to the victims by birth and some of the accused persons by marriage. I know the accused persons and the victims. My hands are tied in this matter. I am sitting between the devil and the deep blue sea.”
Justice Orji also became worried to notice that no counsel appeared for Ikwuchukwu Louis Amadi, the third accused person. She ultimately withdrew from the case, assuring all parties that she would consequently return the case file to the state Chief Judge, Justice Iche Ndu (now retiring) for reassignment.
Counsel to one of the accused persons, Mr Kennedy Amos, reacting to Justice Orji’s withdrawal, said, “The Bar is pleased with the decision of the judge in the interest of justice and to avoid casting aspersions on the judiciary.”
On the 1st of August, a new Judge, Justice L.L. Nyordee took over, and the Solicitor General in Rivers State, Rufus N. Godwins, led the prosecution instead of the DPP.
The Prosecution, however added one more suspect arrested by the police, increasing the number of suspects standing trial to 12.
Following the additional suspect, Godwin asked the court for substitution of the charges earlier filed against the eleven suspects.
Counsel for the 9th accused, Chief O.C.J. Okocha (SAN), objected that arraignment ought to precede application for withdrawal or substitution of a charge. Okocha termed the application as misconceived, adding that the Prosecution was wrong to have cited a section that dealt with application amended in a matter where withdrawal and substitution of charge were involved.
In his ruling, Justice Nyordee granted the application and proceeded to strike out the previous charge. Lawal Segun, Lucky Orji, Ikechukwu Louis Amadi (aka Kapoon), David Chinasa Ogbada, Abiodun Yusuf, Joshua Ekpe, Abang Cyril, Hassan Welewa, Okoghiroh Endurance, Ozioma Abajuo and Chigozie Evans Samuel, who have been in custody since last year in connection with the murder, then took their plea, so did John Ayuwu (aka Johny Barbar) who was being included.
They pleaded not guilty to the two-count charge of murder and negligence.
Godwins told the court that the accused committed the offence contrary to sections 319(1) and 515 of the Criminal Code Law of Rivers State (1999).
The accused were represented by counsels. The 3rd and 8th accused who lacked legal representation at the last sitting were represented by a team from the Legal Aid Council, led by Jane Frances Bianeyi.
After the plea, the Prosecutor adopted the criminal indictments with proofs of evidence filed against the accused and expressed the readiness to call its first witness but urged the court to remand the accused in custody.
Counsel to the first accused, Joshua Kehinde told the court that the crime for which the accused are charged, is mere allegation as the law deemed them innocent until proven otherwise. He told the court that he had filed bail application for his client and was ready to move the motion.
The motion, however, could not be heard as judge adjourned the matter till August 15 for hearing on bail applications realising that some lawyers were yet to file theirs and some files were yet to reach the Prosecution.
When trial resumed on August 15th, the Prosecution led by the Solicitor-General, Rivers State Ministry of Justice, Rufus Godwins opened the trial with the first Prosecution Witness, Raphael Ezeji, a Senior Police Officer who led investigation into the Aluu Four killings.
Two sets of suspects were on trial on separate charges. Charged with murder are: Lawal Segun, Ex-Sgt. Lucky Orji, Ikechukwu Louis Amadi (aka Kapoon), David Chinasa Ogbada, Abiodun Yusuf, Joshua Ekpe, Abang Cyril and John Ayuwu.
Traditional Ruler of Aluu, Alhaji. Hassan Welewa; Okoghiroh Endurance, Ozioma Abajuo and Chigozie Evans Samuel are facing a charge of negligence.
Ezeji, Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) and second in-command in the Homicide Department of the Rivers State Criminal Investigation Department (SCID) told the court some of his findings which he had deposed in an affidavit on the death of the four youths.
Ezeji said, “On October 5, 2013, my department received a report of the gruesome murder of four undergraduate students of UNIPORT at Aluu.
“The report we received was that these four boys were stripped naked, paraded with jubilation and about to be set ablaze at Omuokiri Aluu. As a result, the police division Isiokpo dispatched a combined team to rescue the victims, but because of the distance between the scene of crime and Isiokpo, they had hung condemned tyres on their necks, while some others were with dog, hounding them.
“The crowd they met on the scene when they arrived were shouting ‘kill them, kill them’. Before the police could rescue them, they had already poured petrol on them and lit fire.”
Ezeji said photographs of the remains of the deceased and the streets on which they were paraded naked were taken in course of investigation. He said these documents added to web extracts of the video clips of the killing formed part of exhibits attached to the case file submitted to the prosecution.
Attempt by the prosecution counsel to tender the said photographs/video as exhibits were objected to by 10 of the 12 defendants.
The court fixed the ruling on the admissibility of the exhibits for a later date, August 15th Sitting also provided an opportunity to hear applications for bail of each of the accused persons. All 12 in separate applications urged the court to admitt them to bail, stressing that bail is their constitutional right irrespective of the gravity of the offence alleged to have been committed.
5th Accused, 16-year-old Abiodun Yusuf, urged the court to grant him bail, considering his age. His counsel, G.B.Sanusi, told the court that Yusuf as minor was not supposed to be tried together with other accused persons in the open court.
Counsel to the second set of defendants, including Alhaji Welewa, urged the court to grant them bail, saying their offences carry lighter punishment of two years if convicted. They told the court, that they have already spent close to one year in detention over the matter for allegation of negligent, to wit felony to prevent murder, crime and misdemeanour.
The prosecution objected to the bail applications and urged the court to dismiss their applications for lack in merit. Prosecutor Godwins recognised the court’s discretion to grant bail but argued that due to the serious nature of the offences, it would be unusual for any court to consider granting bail without convincing reasons.
The case was adjourned till October 17 for ruling on the bail application.