Although Nigeria’s constitution says that an arrested criminal defendant is entitled to inform his lawyers and family about his arrest, this is rarely the case. Police often make arrests and secretly charge suspects without allowing them access to their lawyers or notifying their families. Additionally, many of these suspects cannot afford a lawyer. As a result, criminal defendants are unrepresented and end up in overpopulated prisons and without legal support for years, even decades.
Patrick Dunkwu’s project for the JusticeMakers 2008 Competition sought to ensure early legal counsel for indigent criminal defendants in Nigeria as well as to prevent the suspect from being unnecessarily detained by the police, taken to court secretly, or taken to prison on remand custody by the court.
Since 2008, Patrick’s project has met with success,improving access to justice for those who can’t afford it and releasing innocent and criminal defendants from unlawful custody. As a result, Dunkwu and his team released 38 criminal defendants from unlawful detention both at the police stations and the courts, and also raised awareness among lawyers on the need to offer pro bono services to indigent criminal defendants and members of the local community on defense of their human rights.
“One of the most impressive case stories is that of the motor vehicle mechanics who were arrested and detained by the police when a Toyota Camry Car went missing in a garage where they work. Apart from ensuring their release from police custody, I also filed an application for the enforcement of their fundamental human rights to personal liberty, which was granted by the court. Following this intervention, these mechanics became free from police harassment.”
Contrary to the experience of other JusticeMaker Fellows, Dunkwu didn´t experience many difficulties while putting the project into practice. “The initial challenge was gaining the support of the police and prisons needed to do my job. But after several visits to the police and prisons, I got their approval and support.”
Even after four years, Patrick is still working on this project. Due to the local community’s positive support and the commitment of the volunteers collaborating with the project, he has set up the “JusticeMakers Initiative” in Lagos, a local network of legal volunteers continuing to implement the project by offering legal support to indigent criminal defendants and to improve the regime of the legal protection of human rights in Nigeria. Moreover, this network has received official legal recognition as a non-governmental, nonprofit human rights advocacy organization.
“My JusticeMakers Project gave me a great opportunity to realize my dream of putting in place a sustainable platform to fight for the rights of indigent criminal defendants, as well as an opportunity to build a sustainable partnership with state and non-state stakeholders in my work as a human rights defender.”
As a result of Patrick’s work in Nigeria, many accused people are now more aware of their rights and the strategies they can adopt for their enforcement. Additionally,the police are beginning to grant lawyers access to pre-trial detainees. The project created a new kind of collaboration between the JusticeMakers team and the police, as well as the prison officials. This new collaboration assisted in reducing the hostility of the police against his legal team and enabled them easy access to detainees for legal assistance.