By Esther Onyegbula
For Justin Nwankwo, a doctoral student of philosophy at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Anambra State, what he went through inside the cell at the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), Awka in Anambra State, two years ago, is better imagined than experienced. The brutality allegedly meted to him is like hell on earth.
Narrating his ordeal to Crime Guard, the then Manager of Upper Class Hotel in the commercial city of Onitsha, Anambra State, before it was demolished by the Peter Obi administration said: “August 1, 2013 is a day I will never forget in my life, as it marked the beginning of an ugly experience I passed through for three months. It was the day I was arrested alongside 13 others who worked in the hotel I managed while pursuing my educational career.
“That morning, police officers stormed the hotel shouting: ‘Where is your director?’ I took them to his office and they brought out a search warrant. In the course of interrogation, I discovered that they already had a particular room in mind. One of the officers kept shouting: ‘Where is room 102?’ The staff in charge of cleaning the guest rooms had already resumed. Unfortunately, the particular room which the police officers were asking for was locked by the guest who lodged the previous night. When we discovered that the guest did not drop the key at the reception while leaving, the police had to break the door.
“I was there when they forced the door open and discovered two dark poly bags containing two dried human skulls. But the true story is that the night before that day, we had a guest who lodged in one of the rooms in the hotel. He lodged with a name and was given a receipt. It was immediately the guest checked out that the police stormed the hotel early the next morning with a search warrant, searched the hotel and discovered two dried human skulls, two AK-47 rifles and one military cap.”
Crime scene and demolition of hotel
“Ironically, the police did not take photo shots of the crime scene, the hotel, and the bags containing the items, which is what obtains in other climes. Rather, what they did was to march all of us out of the hotel, then whisked us to the Area Command in Onitsha. They took about 13 of us away in a bullion van to the Area Command and then, to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) Akwuzu. When we got there, they said they have to start with the manager. Surprisingly, the hotel was demolished by the state government the same day we were arrested. On the second day, the hotel was in rubble.”
“My ordeal started at Akwuzu Special Anti-Robbery Squad where I met an entirely different world. As a little boy who grew up in Onitsha, I heard that anyone who went to Akwuzu SARS never returned, but I had never been there. When we got there, it was a terrible experience for me. I was the first to be tortured. We were taken to a rickety hall, tied like Christmas goats used for barbecue and hung on a stake. I went through this torture everyday for three months. The torture was in stages. Like other suspects, I was tortured till I passed out. They poured water on me to revive me each time I passed out.”
The torture room
“The torture room was a large hall with several operatives applying different types of techniques in torturing suspects. When I first entered the torture chamber and saw what was happening, I began to expect mine immediately. Most times, sounds of gunshots filled the halls, as suspects were shot by officers. There was a day I was being tortured and bullets were sprayed on a suspect. I was scared of what will be my fate if any of the bullets hit me? There were times I was tied to a stake with arms raised up. Blood was dripping out of my nose. When I passed out, I was taken off the stake for about an hour or two to recover before the torture continued. From that stage, I was taken to where my hands were tied with a rope and pulled in different directions.
“Severally, I felt I may not survive the torture because of the weighty allegations against me. I was tortured for three months.
“The final torture I received was from my investigating police officer, IPO, who used his hands to pull out the hair on my skin because I am hairy. I noticed that each time we were being tortured, the officers murmured among themselves, asking what would happen if the suspects died. This shows they knew that the treatment they were meting out was inhuman.”
Physical and mental torture
“Initially when I got there, I was asked to write a statement. Midway, they forced me to stop. After the physical torture, they took me through the mental torture. This involved putting you inside a small dark crowded cell with about 26 other suspects, all naked. We were not fed. We were kept under dehumanising condition. Some suspects had gunshot wounds which were decaying, septic, with maggots coming out.
“When tortured beyond unbearable limit, suspects will begin to confess to crimes they didn’t commit, saying what the officers wanted them to say just to be freed from torture. The painful aspect is the fact that they lie to your relatives when they come, that you are not in their custody. Meanwhile you are wasting away in their cell.
“It was when the Network on Police Reform in Nigeria (NOPRIN) mounted pressure through media publications that my IPO brought a statement written by him and forced me to sign. Without being derogatory, my IPO is less educated than me. So, I had to confront him when I was granted bail three months later, insisting that the written statement was not mine. Instead of showing remorse, he quipped that I should be happy I was not wasted.”
“Travel to Aso Rock”
“Goings-on at the SARS, Awkuzu, are very inhuman. They are degrading human life there. Each time human rights activists and civil society organizations visit, they give us clothes to wear and depopulate the cells by taking suspects to other cells. After they leave, they bring the suspects back into the cells. It was during one of such occasions that some suspects died. They execute people summarily in Cell 5. The cell is built in such a way that when you come inside the building, it is the first cell you see but you won’t know that anything like that goes on there. Whenever they open the cell, expectations are that many suspects will certainly die and they simply refer to it as, ‘travelling to Aso Rock’. We saw it, we experienced it and we felt it. Every night, we feel like it was the last day on earth.”
Disappearance of suspects at night
“Usually in SARS, two words are commonly used. They are: to ‘waste and to travel’. Initially, when I began to hear the phrase, I didn’t understand what it meant till suspects began to disappear from our cells at night and never returned. Some of the suspects I met in the cell left and I rose to become the boss. But I was a very benevolent boss as I fed suspects in the cell with the money my parents gave me while in cell. I was lucky to have survived the physical, mental and psychological torture but when I was released, I had to face the societal stigma as people who were close to me before my arrest and detention, stayed away from me and treated me like I was an ex-convict.”
Back to academics
“I was supposed to have completed my programme but for my ordeal, I was forcefully taken away from the academic world. I returned this year. Hopefully, before the end of July, I would defend my project. Ironically, the police filed a suit against us at the magistrate’s court when there was too much pressure from civil right organisations spear-headed by NOPRIN. The police was forced to take us to court. On the day we were arraigned in court at about 2:30am, officers came into the cell, asked us to have our bath. I asked where they were taking us. They said they were taking us to court. That was the first time in three months that I took my bath. At the court, we were arraigned on a seven-count charge ranging from murder to robbery.”
Demolition in error
“While in prison, we made enquiries about Nnabule Okafor, the man they said we killed in the charges preferred against us. The truth of the matter is that Anambra State government demolished the hotel in error and when they discovered that it was an error and the whole incident, a set-up, they had to file a charge against us so that they could justify the demolition of the building.
Now that we have been bailed, both the police and the Department of Public Prosecution (DPP) have refused to take the case to high court. We have 14 suits in court on violation of fundamental human rights. All the cases we have in the court are the ones we instituted for the government to compensate us but nothing has been done. We have served them notice yet they refused to respond.”
Compensation for the oppressed
“It is all part of the torture that both the police and Anambra State Governor have erred and still will not accept the fact that there is need to compensate those whom you have victimized.
“The experience of torture in the Nigerian police if you have not heard, or seen or felt it, you keep hearing go to court, go to court but we have been in the court.
“We also want to be in the court of public opinion because when this thing happened, the Governor of Anambra State did not go to court.
He became the accuser and the judge at the same time. He demolished the hotel alongside the properties of those who lived and worked in that place. I am not scared to discuss this experience because I still want justice to be done,” he stated.