South South — Jurist abandons sitting for fear of being abducted, How kidnappers hunt for judges
A suspected kidnap syndicate in Delta State, allegedly with police officers as members, is presently the subject of top-secret investigations by security agencies, both in the state and Abuja. The syndicate allegedly specialised in intimidating and collecting ransom from High Court judges and other prominent citizens in the state.
Already, two police officers - an orderly to a serving judge, Justice Flora Azinge of the Otor-Udu High Court, Otor-Udu, who was asked to pay N20 million ransom by the kidnap gang and another police officer that came to collect ransom that was planted by soldiers - have been arrested and detained.
Delta State Police Commissioner, Mr. Ikechukwu Aduba, confirmed that the two police officers were indeed arrested in connection with the demand for ransom from Justice Azinge.
His words, "Yes, that is true. The policemen are being detained in the Criminal Investigations Department, CID, Asaba; and we are carrying out discreet investigations on the matter. If they are found culpable, they will definitely be dealt with".
The embattled judge, Azinge, has shunned sitting for nearly two months running because of the serious threat to her life by the kidnap syndicate, which vowed that they would get her by all means, as well as the discovery that the police orderly, officially deployed to protect her, was a member of the syndicate.
Sunday Vanguard gathered that, but for the intervention of Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan, it would have been difficult to record the progress made so far in the investigations.
Investigations by Sunday Vanguard showed that fear has gripped judges in the state following the incident.
On Wednesday, November 21, a judge of the High Court in Obiaruku, Justice Obi, narrowly escaped what appeared to be a kidnap incident on his way to work.
"The suspected kidnappers eventually took away his vehicle. This made another High Court at Effurun to rise early Wednesday. I think government needs to do something urgently about security of judges in the state", our source stated.
It was learnt that Justice Obi, who resides in Effurun, was on his way to resume work at about 8.00 a.m., Wednesday, when he was ambushed by the kidnappers.
Also, Justice A. Omaamogho of the High Court, Isiokolo, escaped from kidnappers, who snatched his car. But the car, which has a tracking device, was later recovered at Ore in Ondo State.
In August, kidnappers seized a newly appointed judge of the Delta State High Court, Justice Marcel Okoh.
Okoh, a former Director of Public Prosecution, DPP, in the state, was kidnapped by the gun totting men at Oria-Abraka in Ethiope -East Local Government Area of the state on his way to the oil city of Warri.
The vacation judge for High Court 4, Warri was allegedly trailed from Umunede, along the Benin-Asaba expressway by the armed men in his SUV and overtaken at Oria, along the Agbor-Abraka-Ughelli road, where he was taken.
Tip-off from litigants
Sunday Vanguard exclusively knew about the Justice Azinge saga when some litigants complained that cases at the High Court, Otor-Udu were suffering adjournments because of the refusal of the judge to sit for nearly two months.
An informal inquiry revealed that the refusal of the judge to sit was not deliberate, but as result of threats she received from kidnappers.
To reach Azinge was a problem, as court officials declined to give out her address and phone numbers, not to talk of confirming the reason for her gaping absence from court.
Meanwhile, the issue of the threat to the judge was a kept secret from the media, but the governor and other persons that ought to know were alerted.
Sunday Vanguard did not obtain a copy of the threat letter allegedly dispatched to Azinge sometime in September, but our sources said the judge was taken aback when she received the letter, asking her to pay N20 million ransom or risk the consequence of non-compliance after 48 hours.
A source close to the judge esaid, "The kidnappers said they were hungry and needed the money to sustain themselves. She initially took it as mere threat and called for increased security around her. And, indeed, her security was beefed up, but she was dumbfounded when the kidnappers actually visited her residence after the expiration of the 48-hour ultimatum, but could not gain access to the compound.
"That was when she took the matter more seriously and started making efforts to ward -off the money-making kidnappers.
"The kidnappers called her after the aborted visit to tell her that she could not escape, that they were watching her. They told her what she was doing in her house about the time they called and reminded her that they were still waiting for their ransom.
"In fact, they asked her why she was refusing to cooperate with them, saying that many other judges in the state had paid them".
With the accurate information given her on phone by the kidnappers regarding her activities within her home, Azinge suspected the connivance of her aides and promptly reported to the police.
Before then, she reportedly called one of the phone lines used to speak to her and the number was ringing in the pocket of his police orderly, who was standing by her side. The police orderly refused to pick the phone at the time.
Sunday Vanguard learnt that the police orderly, driver and other aides of the judge were seized and whisked away for interrogation.
However, our source said that despite the statement of the judge that the line was ringing in the pocket of her orderly, those investigating the matter said there was no clear evidence linking the police officer to the threat.
The police orderly denied any link with a kidnap gang, but said the phone line in question belonged to his cousin residing outside the state - Anambra to be precise.
An unofficial source said he was released after interrogation for lack of evidence, but a police countered that, saying, "It is not true; the police orderly has been in detention for about two months now. He was first arrested and held in Warri, but was later brought to Asaba".
The threat to the judge subsided after the arrest of the police orderly, but shortly after it appeared as if he was given a breather by police investigators, the kidnappers resumed their calls to the judge to pay the ransom, as they warned that she could not escape from them.
In fact, Azinge, according to our findings, sat for about one week in October, but when the kidnappers kept scaring the daylight out of her, she decided to put her life first before her official duty.
Sunday Vanguard found that the governor, with his years of experience in tackling issues of kidnapping, suspected something funny and, unknown to the police, soldiers were brought into the investigations.
A top army officer, who was involved in the investigations, said, "by this time, the kidnappers were still making phone calls to the judge asking her to pay ransom."
"What we did was to plan our operation. We asked the woman to play along with them. They asked her to bring the ransom to a place in the Ugbuwangue area of Warri. The military planted a fake ransom and cordoned off the area", the army officer added.
"The police officer, who is a second member of the gang, now in custody, came to pick up the ransom and he was arrested. He was taken unawares because he did not know that undercover military personal had laid siege to the area. They saw him when he was coming and they monitored his movement. He was arrested and handed over to the police for further investigations.
"If he was shot, there would have been argument between the army and the police that he was not involved, that soldiers killed their man unlawfully. However, he was arrested alive and handed over to the police authorities. I am saying this because right now, we are hearing that they are saying there is no hard evidence to link them to the offence".
Indeed, a senior police officer, who pleaded anonymity, told Sunday Vanguard, "The policeman who was arrested by the soldiers said he was only passing through the area when he was arrested. He identified himself as a police officer and was taken to the police station. He was released that night, but the next day, the army said there was a call that he should be arrested.
"He was re-arrested and is being detained in Asaba. The police orderly, who was first arrested is also in detention. It is not true that he was released at any time. We do not condone such persons in the police. If they are found guilty, they will surely be punished, but, right now, I can tell you that there is no strong evidence linking them to the alleged crime".
However, Commissioner of Police, Aduba, in a chat with Sunday Vanguard, gave indication that he would not cover any police officer involved in kidnapping.
In August, the Officer-in-Charge, OC, Anti-Kidnapping Task Force in Delta State, a Chief Superintendent of Police, CSP, and six members of the squad (names withheld), were disarmed, arrested and flown to Abuja on the orders of the Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Abubakar, for allegedly aiding and abetting kidnappers in the state.
However, the IGP, who supervised the investigation of the police officer, said he did not find strong evidence to link him to the offence and, therefore, cleared him of complicity.
Our source said, "The highest echelon of the Nigeria Police is aware of the present case involving a judge of a High Court in Delta State and I know other security agencies are watching to see what the police will do with the matter"
Meanwhile, Sunday Vanguard has discovered that there is an undeclared row between the police and other security agencies in the state over the manner police authorities came to the defence of its men linked to kidnapping.
In the instant case, tongues are wagging as to what fate awaits the two in custody, given that some police officers have concluded that there was no strong case against them.
The absurdity is complicated by the fact that the phone line used by the kidnap gang to call Azinge was found allegedly ringing in the pocket of her police orderly, while the other was caught when he came to pick up ransom.
A senior police officer, however, told Sunday Vanguard, "I know that many people are working against the interest of the police. They do not want to see anything good coming out of the police. In this state, Delta, everybody knows we are fighting kidnappers and we are winning the war. No matter the distraction, we are not saying that we do not see the cooperation of other security agencies, but they should stop painting the police bad.
"I can tell you that the Commissioner of Police, Mr Aduba, is in support of the army, the SSS and others, helping us to fight kidnappers and other criminals in the state. His position is that any of the security agencies that arrest kidnappers or kill criminals does not matter; what matters to him is that criminals are losing the battle in the state".
'A sad commentary'
National co-ordinator of the Forum for Justice and Human Rights Defence, FJHD, Warri, Mr. Oghenejabor Ikimi, said, "I am aware that for the past two months or thereabouts, the Hon Judge of the High Court, Otor Udu, Justice Azinge, has refused to sit on the grounds of threats to her life by kidnappers who are on her trail."
Ikimi added that the Azinge saga was a very sad commentary of the state of insecurity in the nation, saying there is the urgent need to beef up security around our judicial officers nationwide.
"FJHD has two human rights cases in her court, which has suffered some adjournments owing to the plight of the judge. However, we are not perturbed by the said adjournments but, rather, we are more concerned about her security and safety to be able to effectively perform her official duties as a judge of the High Court of Delta state", he stated
"Hence, we are calling on the police to unravel those behind the plight, as the scenario gives the outside world the impression that as a nation, we are a lawless state".
We are shocked - CDHR
Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, CDHR, Delta State branch, in a statement by the chair and secretary, Mr. Benefit Orugbo and Fred Omereyone respectively, said it was aware that kidnappers threatened that "they will get Justice Azinge anywhere and by any means."
According to them, "CDHR is shocked that the Nigeria Police, the judiciary and the Delta State Government have not stepped in to addressing the threat to kidnap the Honorable Judge of the Otor-Udu High Court, which threat has made the court not to sit for about two months.
"The CDHR hold the above agencies responsible for the plight of the litigants and accused persons whose matters are pending before the High Court, Otor-Udu , occasioned by the said threat and the lukewarm altitude on the part of government agencies to providing High Court Judges with adequate security to enable them dispense justice without fear or favour.
"In the circumstances, therefore, the CDHR call on the Delta State Government to immediately put in place a back up security guards for High Court Judges in the State, and other states ought to adopt same for their judges to enable them function at their best".
Why Azinge has not resumed duty
Despite the arrest of two police officers suspected to be members of the kidnap syndicate, a top government official, privy to the threat by the kidnappers, said, "She cannot resume work now because the syndicate is not one or two persons. There are many people involved; she has to wait for them to be picked up first.
"She is a human being also", when you discover that even the security agents working with you are suspected kidnappers and traitors, will you not want to be careful and you know the nature of the work of judges?.
"However, I know that that the state governor, Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan, is on top of the situation. He has every detail of what is going on and, if not for him, we would not have made the success we have made thus far. Just give us some time, the matter will be sorted out; we do not want to risk the life and liberty of our judges or any citizen of the state".
On Thursday, when Sunday Vanguard sent a photographer, Akpokona Omafuaire, to the Azinge's court at Otor-Udu to find out what was happening, he reported that litigants were in court, but the judge did not sit.