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For PWDs in Nigeria, road to justice remains tortuous, costly (2)

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Our correspondent observed that many courts of law in the country do not have ramps and railings. During visits to the Federal High Court headquarters in Abuja, the Supreme Court, and Osun State High Court, there were no ramps and railings at the entrances of the facilities, making accessibility for PWDs difficult.

But Daniel Onwe, who is the president of the Association of Lawyers with Disabilities, said lack of ramps is not the only problem PWDs face in court.

“The justice administration system in Nigeria was not designed with persons with disabilities in mind. To date, sign language interpreters for the deaf and braille material and other facilities for the visually impaired are still totally absent in our courts.

“Courtrooms and court environments generally have no facilities to cater to the peculiarities of persons with disabilities. The same applies to the practices and procedures of the court.

“This is most worrisome for junior lawyers with disabilities who do not have cars and who cannot employ aides to accompany them to courts. The situation is more frustrating to them. I used to be there and I know how it feels. Handling cases for PWDs are majorly probono, as most of them are not of means,” said Onwe.

A lawyer, Ishaku Adamu lamented that judges in the country lacked the requisite knowledge to preside over PWDs cases, adding that many of them are always impatient.

He said, “Most times when a visually impaired person has a good case of harassment in court, especially among our women, because of how our justice system works, it requires a lot of resources and time to follow up such a case but most of our judges do not understand this.

“Most of our judges and policemen do not have any training to understand PWDs, as such they have a ‘charity’ approach to our cases. They have never thought of the fact that we are people of rights and capable of exercising such rights in any place we find ourselves. They only see us as objects of pity, and ridicule or they will not listen to you in some cases. There are very few exceptions to this.”

Efforts to get the Media Assistant to the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Umar Gwandu were unsuccessful. He neither picked up calls to his lines nor responded to messages sent to him as of the time of filling this report.

“The experience for normal people in prison is not palatable let alone PWDs,” the former resident pastor of the Kirikiri Maximum Prison, David Godfrey, who regained his freedom in October 2021 after 14 years in prison, told this reporter.

He said two PWDs inmates he came in contact with did not get the best of treatment.

Godfrey said, “There is a blind man at the condemned cell of the Kirikiri maximum prison called Baba Mathew, he’s from Benue.  He was not getting the best treatment. We used to take his food to him anytime he wanted to eat. He went blind in prison. We were both in the condemned cell in 2012 but between 2014 and 2015, he went blind. He was not given a white cane to assist him and was not granted clemency. Nobody gives them (PWDs) special treatment, who will answer them? There is also another who could not walk, he was not provided with a wheelchair. He was released in 2019 and died in 2020. Except a PWD is buoyant, he would be in the same crowded cell with others.”

Another former inmate at the Kirikiri maximum prison, Chukwudi Iwueke said the PWDs were not comfortable at the custodial centre.

He said, “Six persons with disability. There is no way the place can be comfortable for anyone irrespective of their condition. I can tell you that there is no special treatment for persons with disability, we all lived and did everything together with no regard for their condition.

“One thing is this, we loved ourselves and helped them. For instance, if the blind wanted to walk around, one of us helps him around. From my experience, the government should try and give them special treatment.”

The Communications Director, Headfort Foundation, a group canvasing prison reforms, Itunuoluwa Awolu, said PWDs in incarceration are entitled to decent lives.

She said, “We believe that everyone deserves to be treated with utmost care while in the correctional centres, hence, Persons with Disabilities should have all they require for easy commuting, necessary health care, nutrition, and reintegration processes that align with their conditions.

“The correctional centres are overcrowded and it makes it difficult for the inmates, especially PWDs to get all the attention required during their stay.”

She, however, called for more awareness and advocacy for PWDs in custody to help speak up on their challenges, adding that this would drive the government to renovate the facilities to accommodate and create an enabling environment for PWDs.

When contacted, the Spokesperson for the Nigerian Correctional Service, Umar Abubakar said the Controller General was ready to meet with the leaders of the PWDs group to address the challenges they might be experiencing at the various custodial centres.

He said, “The largest room in the world is one for improvement. As part of ongoing efforts to ensure that no gap is created and things like this among others are addressed, the CG has ensured that staff undergoes training. Our doors are open.

“We will want their organisation to interact with the service on any suggestions that would improve our relationship between PWDs and correctional service. We will like to have a conversation with them on the area they feel that the service should improve on. They understand the yearnings of their members better. The CG is open, he will be happy if they can do this. And please help us use your platform to make this happen.”

With the experiences of this reporter during the course of this investigation and that of the victims, getting justice for Persons with Disabilities, who according to a world report on disability published in 2011, are about 25 million in Nigeria is like a camel trying to pass through the eye of a needle.

This is despite the provisions and pacts which guarantee their right to justice.

For instance, Section 42 of the 1999 Constitution provides thus:

(1) A citizen of Nigeria of a particular community, ethnic group, place of origin, sex, religion or political opinion shall not, by reason only that he is such person,

(a) be subjected either expressly by or in the practical application of any law in force in Nigeria or any executive or administrative action of the government, to disabilities or restrictions to which citizens of Nigeria of other communities, ethnic groups, places of origin, sex, religions or political opinions are not made subject and;

(b) be accorded either expressly by, or in the practical application of, any law in force in Nigeria or any such executive or administrative action, any privilege or advantage that is not accorded to citizens of Nigeria of other communities, ethnic groups, places of origin, sex, religion or political opinions.

These sections established the right of PWDs and equality before the law as well as freedom from discrimination.

Also, Article 3 of the African Charter provides for equality before the law and equal protection of the law.

In addition, Nigeria is a signatory to the United Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Article 13 of the pact, encourages state parties to employ available mechanisms towards ensuring that persons with disabilities enjoy unfettered access to justice on an equal basis with others, prioritising training of sexual and gender-based violence and justice actors to be able to provide procedural and administrative accommodations towards achieving this.

Also, in January 2019, the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), signed the Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act 2018 into law.

Specifically, Sections 3 to 6 of the Act mandated that persons with disability should be afforded lifts, ramps, and other accessibility aids to enable them access to all physical structures on an equal basis with others. This is lacking in police stations, NSDC commands, correctional centres, and courtrooms across the country.

Also, from the investigation and interactions with PWD groups, this reporter observed that the country has yet to implement the adequate measures required to promote the legal rights of persons with disabilities in all aspects of society.

The Chief Executive Officer of Cedar Seed Foundation, a leading NGO advocating for PwDs, Lois Auta said many law enforcement agents including the police believed PwDs are undeserving of getting justice.

She said, “The first perception or questions asked by law enforcement agents asked is what did you do? Why did you go to look for the trouble of people without Disabilities? These words are demeaning and disheartening,”.

She recalled a case of injustice meted out on a PWD, adding that she was yet to get justice.

Auta said, “There was a case of a lady with a disability who sells recharge cards at the Federal Secretariat in Abuja and some people came to pack her goods. The matter was reported to the police but nothing has been done.”

According to her, getting justice for PWDs remains cumbersome except if a PWD is connected or buoyant.

She said, “We find it very difficult to get justice in Nigeria. This is because we don’t have the connections to talk to Deputy Inspector Generals of Police or Assistant Inspector Generals of Police. Also,  we don’t have money to pay lawyers.”

To her, having people who have a deep understanding of PWDs, especially those with special needs education in their employ would help a great deal in breaking this barrier.

She added, “They need them at the reception of the stations. Institutions in the country should begin to think in that direction. Just as a receptionist is seated in the office, that is how we want to see someone who can communicate with us. A deaf person, someone on crutches or wheelchairs, and a blind person among others have the same rights. Once you do this for us, we would be happy and contribute to the development of the country.”

Also, the Chairperson of the International Federation of Female Lawyers in Plateau, Felicia Achilefu, at a sensitisation programme for PWDs, said, ‘’To build their (PWDs) confidence in our justice system, special desks must be established in the police force,’’ noting that personnel attached to the desk must be trained in the handling issues of PWDs as well as Communication skills, especially the use of sign language for the hearing-impaired.

She also called on the government to establish special courts for PWDs to accelerate their hearings for justice to encourage them to report cases.

“Let court, police, and correctional centre environments, buildings, practice, and procedures be accessible. This entails having in place ramps and functional, elevators, sign language interpreters, braille facilities, and other assistive facilities. Court, police, and correctional Centre officials should be trained on disability issues,” Onwe recommended.

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