Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) - A Nigerian non-governmental organization, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), has said that plea the bargaining procedure should be regulated in the nation's judicial system if the Federal government intends to actually tackle corruption.
In a statement, signed by its executive director, Adetokunbo Mumuni, and obtained by PANA Sunday, SERAP said 'There is an urgent need for a 'root-and-branch' reform of the plea bargaining procedure and demonstration of strong political will to fight corruption fairly.'
SERAP was reacting to the judgment delivered last week by Justice Abdulsalam Talba of the Federal High Court, Abuja, on the theft of police pension funds by John Yakubu Yusuf.
Yusuf was given a light sentence of two years imprisonment or a fine of 750,000 naira (about US$ 5,000) after admitting to have stolen, along with other, 27.2 billion naira (about US$ 181 million). That judgment sparked a public outcry and the convict was re-arrested for further trial.
It said 'Public criticisms have followed the judgment, and some have even blamed the judge for ‘being too lenient’, and called for his dismissal.'
According to SERAP, instead of blaming the judge, the government should “be blamed for putting unregulated plea bargaining procedure at the heart of its fight against corruption while at the same time ignoring to establish sound legal framework to regulate the practice so that our courts are able to deliver true justice for the victims of large-scale corruption in the country.”
The organization also said that “the judgment illustrates the systemic problem associated with the government’s anti-corruption fight.'
“An important element of justice is missing when the accused and the government believe a plea bargain is fair while judges lack the necessary legal tool and mandatory guidelines upon which to decide and render true justice. Once the legal framework is there, judges will have to live up to citizens’ expectation that the courts will apply and interpret the law reasonably and consistently,” the organization said.
SERAP also said that, “At the moment, plea bargaining only tends to serve the interest of the corrupt public officials who continue to profit from their crimes and ill-gotten wealth. Plea bargaining cases such as those involving Tafa Balogun, Lucky Igbinedion and Diespreye Alamieyeseigha and Yakubu Yusuf among others are “a law unto themselves.”
The organization said that, “In its current unregulated format, plea bargaining procedure promotes unjustifiable sentencing disparities, favours the rich over the poor, encourages corruption and is self-defeating and counter-productive.”
“What this government must do now is to strengthen the hands of our courts by ensuring that existing specific anti-corruption laws such as the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Act and the EFCC Act are improved and fairly enforced in line with Nigeria’s obligations under the UN Convention against Corruption. A good starting point is to domesticate this comprehensive convention,” it added.
“The Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice Muhammed Adoke should urgently work with the National Assembly to develop a comprehensive legal framework to regulate the use of plea bargaining in a way that it is done effectively to increase judicial involvement in the procedure, render justice to the victims of corruption and deter future corrupt public officials. The government should consider increasing the potential sentence for large-scale and high level official corruption,” the organization further said.
According to it: “Plea bargaining procedure should be transparent and able to defer and not constitute an institutionalized incentive for large scale official corruption. Otherwise, the use of unregulated plea bargaining will continue to undermine the integrity of the criminal justice system, and citizens’ support for the fight against corruption.”
The organization said that, “Charging Mr Yusuf under the outdated and very limited provisions of the penal code rather than the Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC) Act was apparently dictated by his ‘plea bargaining.”
“The judge was simply applying the outdated and limited law and endorsing the plea bargain by both the prosecution and the accused. Even if the accused had received the maximum punishment of both two years in prison and a fine, true justice would still not have been served especially given the gravity of the offence, and its corrosive impact on disadvantaged police pensioners.”