COVID-19: Akwa Ibom magistrate imposes outrageous conditions for journalist’s bail

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A court ruling delivered by an Uyo Magistrate court in a matter concerning a journalist, Mr. Kufre Carter has been triggering concerns among defenders of press freedom and democracy in Akwa Ibom state.

On Wednesday, Carter, a sports journalist with XL106.9FM in Akwa Ibom was alleged to have been covertly dragged before a Magistrate Court presided over by Magistrate Winifred M. Umohandy Esq., where he was arraigned on a three count charge bordering on defamation of character.

Carter was accused of defaming the Commissioner for Health in Akwa Ibom State, Dr. Dominic Ukpong, in a purported private phone conversation with a certain medical doctor in which the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in the state was allegedly criticized.

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Expressing displeasure on the court ruling, a group, People’s Alternative Fronts (PAF) said the ruling as pronounced by the magistrate “amounts to a total mockery of the judicial system” in the country.

The group in a statement signed by its Secretary, Eze Aloysius said:”We are however alarmed by the bail conditions imposed on Mr. Carter by Magistrate Winifred which are not only obnoxious, unreasonable and embarrassing, but amounts to a total mockery of the judicial system.

“Magistrate Winifred Umohandy granted Mr. Carter “bail” in the sum of Three (3) Million Naira with a surety in like sum. As if that was not excessive enough, the Magistrate insisted that the surety must be a Permanent Secretary with the Akwa Ibom State Government.

“Not done with her outlandish conditions, the Magistrate also demanded that Mr. Carter should bring “a letter of identification” from his Village Head to the Court as part of his bail conditions. It is also reported that the Magistrate descended into the arena and openly showed bias when she expressed anger in open court over the way people now write things against government officials on Facebook and other social media.”

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The People’s Alternative Fronts (PAF) added that the attack on freedom of speech and the use of force to clampdown on critics of the state government has reached its apogee in the state.

“While we respect the institution of the judiciary, we are shocked that a Magistrate who swore to uphold the Constitution of Nigeria will allow herself to be used by questionable political actors in Akwa Ibom State to suppress the rights of citizens.

“We are also perturbed by the fact that Mr. Carter who was taken to the Court in a commando style by a large contingent of SSS operatives was remanded in the custody of the same SSS that has denied Mr. Carter access to his lawyers.

“The SSS from our investigation did not inform the lawyers to Carter that their client was going to be arraigned in court. The lawyers only became aware by a tip- off.

“How on earth does the Magistrate expect Mr. Carter to get not just a civil servant in Akwa Ibom State, but a Permanent Secretary that works for the same government that is prosecuting him to be his surety? What is the business of Mr. Carter’s Village Head with the purported charge of defamation?

“It is remarkable that the State Attorney General, Mr. Uwemedimo Nwoko, was sighted within the court premises before the court sat. It is also of interest to us that the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) in Akwa Ibom, Mr. Joseph Umoren Esq., personally appeared in court to prosecute Mr. Carter.

“All these clearly show that the Akwa Ibom State Government is not pursuing any sincere case against Mr. Carter who has been a critic of the government, but is rather manipulating the judicial process to punish Mr. Carter for his critical views.

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“We call on His Lordship, the Hon. Chief Judge of Akwa Ibom State, Justice Godwin Abraham, to urgently rescue the state judiciary from the vicious and manipulative grip of politicians. We ask the judiciary to assert its independence and not allow its reputation to be further ruined.”

The group argues that the bail conditions slammed on the detained journalist are outrageous and contrary to established precedents. “The bail conditions are outrageous. The conditions are contrary to established precedents of the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court to the effect that bail conditions should be liberal.

“Mr. Carter should be allowed to enjoy his constitutional right to presumption of innocence until he is proven guilty. Sadly, it appears Magistrate Winifred Umohandy has already convicted him,” the statement concluded.

Also, the Sports Writers Association of Nigeria (SWAN) has fumed at the court ruling against the journalist, demanding his unconditional release. The Association in a statement released by its Chairman, Emmanuel Akpan said:”Comrade Kufre Carter, who is a sport presenter with XL106.9FM is a registered member and we hereby call for his unconditional release or be immediately charged to court.

“Under normal circumstances, we would not have gotten to this stage because as a law abiding citizen, Comrade Kufre Carter had received a phone call to be at the State Security Service (SSS), Akwa Ibom state Command in Uyo on Monday over a purported audio conversation with a medical practitioner on the current fight against Corona virus in the State.

“On his arrival at the state SSS office, he was detained and has been there for over twenty four hours without being told of his crime whether criminal or civil.

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“The continued detention of Comrade Kufre Carter by the SSS in the State has exposed him to a high risk of being exposed to the dreaded Corona virus as the preventive measures are said not to be taken into consideration at his incarceration center which is against the directives of the world health organisation, Federal and State Government on the fight against Corona virus.

“As a public affairs commentator that is respected within and outside the State, our member did no harm in doing his comment and as a responsible citizen of Nigeria, he as no record of criminality and as such, should not be treated as a common criminal.

“As we demand for his release with immediate effect, we urge the State Government, Human Rights Activists, and right thinking members of the public to join us in calling on the SSS to either release Comrade Kufre Carter unconditionally from detention or be charged to court,” SWAN said in the statement.

•The New Diplomat