By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA – The Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, Court sitting in Abuja, on Thursday, ordered the Federal Government to pay N18million to Nollywood actress, Dorothy Njamenze and two other ladies whose rights it held were grossly violated by security operatives in 2011.
The other ladies the regional court ordered FG to compensate are Justina Etim and Amarachi Jessyford.
It ordered FG to pay the trio N6m each for their unlawful arrest and detention after they were declared as prostitutes in Abuja.
Justice Friday Chijoke Nwoke who delivered the lead judgment, said the ECOWAS court was satisfied that the plaintiffs were humiliated and dehumanised after they were arrested in an operation that was carried out by a joint task force that comprised of military men, police and officials of the Abuja Environmental Protection Board who claimed to have acted on FG’s directive.
The court declared their arrest as arbitrary and unconstitutional, noting that the security operatives failed to prove that the plaintiffs were commercial sex workers.
Justice Nwoke who led a three-man panel of Judges of the court, held that the Nigerian government was liable for the illegal conduct of the joint security team that abused the fundamental human rights of the plaintiffs.
More so, the court held that FG’s action by declaring the three ladies as prostitutes, amounted to gross violation of their rights to dignity since they were only arrested for being outside in the late hours.
The ECOWAS Court agreed with counsel to the plaintiffs, Mr. Bolaji Gabari that there was no law in the Nigerian statute book prohibiting women from being outside in the late hours.
It held that the defendant acted in bad faith and in gross violation of the fundamental rights of the plaintiffs to freedom of movement, by arresting and detaining them at the Gwarimpa Police Station in Abuja without informing them of the reason for the arrest and without charging them to court for any known offence.
According to the court, action of the security operatives was cruel, inhuman, degrading, discriminatory, unlawful and condemnable, adding that the plaintiffs’ rights to human dignity were violated in breach of all known human rights laws.
Justice Nwoke maintained that from the totality of evidence that were presented before the court during the hearing of the matter, and from claims of the plaintiffs, he said it was clear that the action of the defendant was targeted at women in very discriminatory ways and manners.
He held that the fact that a woman was seen on the streets at late hours was not enough ground to tag her a prostitute.
The court faulted FG for not conducting any form of background check with a view to determining identities of the plaintiffs before it declared them as prostitutes and dumped them in police cell.
“The right to human dignity is the most fundamental human rights and unless legislation permits, no one must be deprived of the right to human dignity.
“In the instant case, the action of the defendant runs contrary to all laws on human rights because the arbitrary arrest, detention and declaration of the plaintiffs as a class of prostitute was not premised on any known law.
“At any rate, discriminatory treatment, cruel and inhuman treatment meted out to the plaintiffs in this case cannot be said to be in good faith for whatever reasons other than the fact that their fundamental rights to human dignity have been violently violated and as such, each of the plaintiff is hereby awarded six million naira each to be paid by the defendant for the unlawful action against the citizens”, the court held.
Justice Nwoke admitted that law enforcement agents under the law may have powers to make lawful arrest, he said such power becomes unlawful when the power of arrest is arbitrarily carried out, as was in the instant case.
Meanwhile, reacting to the judgment, the actress, Njamenze, who wept uncontrollably at the end of the proceeding, expressed her appreciation to the court for giving her justice.
She expressed optimism that with the judgment, the government would reconsider some laws and policies that are discriminatory to women.
Simillarly, the Progamme Officer, Gender Justice Project for Alliances for Africa, Chetach Loius Udeh, whose organization coordinated the court action for the plaintiffs, urged the Nigerian government to learn from the court judgment by dropping all actions aimed at exposing women to cruel treatment and unnecessary ridicule in the hands of security agents.