During the week, the bizarre news of the sentencing of human rights lawyer, Barr. Inibehe Effiong, to prison by the Chief Judge of Akwa Ibom State High Court, Ekaette Obot, for alleged contempt of court generated mixed reactions, especially on social media.
Effiong who is the Convener of the Coalition of Human Rights Defenders (COHRD), graduated with an LL.B degree from the University of Uyo. He also graduated from the Nigerian Law School (Lagos Campus) and was called to Bar as a Barrister and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria in 2015.
While narrating his own side of the story, Effiong alleged in a Twitter thread, that the judge sent him to prison when he came to court to defend his client, Leo Ekpenyong, in a libel suit filed by Akwa Ibom Governor Udom Emmanuel.
He said: “The Chief Judge of Akwa Akwa Ibom ordered a Premium Times reporter to leave the court.
“I said my lord, we were thinking that since the proceeding is public, members of the public should be allowed to observe the proceeding. My Lord asked me to proceed with cross-examination
“I obeyed. I informed the court that I was not feeling comfortable and safe having two armed mobile policemen seated inside the courtroom, that it was strange and that I felt unsafe. I applied for the judge to excuse the armed policemen from the courtroom.
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“The Hon. Chief Judge then ordered me to step out of the Bar, that she was sending me to prison.
“She then ordered the policemen to take me to Uyo prison. And that I should be in jail for one month. I am waiting inside the courtroom for them to bring the conviction warrant.
“I will be going to the Uyo Correctional Centre now. I have not done anything. I wasn’t even given opportunity to say anything before the “conviction.” Two lawyers in the court appealed to the Hon. Chief Judge but my Lord insisted that I must be jailed. This is in the suit filed by Governor Udom Emmanuel against a lawyer, Leo Ekpenyong, for alleged defamation,” he stated.
The matter became a subject of discourse in the court of public opinion. Some legal practitioners and civil society groups kicked against the sentencing, and also tackled the Chief Judge for her action.
Some others who argued in favour of the Chief Judge said she has the prerogative to commit a contemptuous and erring lawyer to prison in order to return sanity to the court.
Reacting, human rights lawyer Festus Ogun argued that no lawyer should be jailed for defending his client.
“This is clearly unacceptable. No lawyer should be persecuted, jailed, or punished for courageously defending his client regardless of the position of who is involved.
“Akwa Ibom CJ has crossed the sacred lines and has shown partisanship,” he posited.
Another human rights lawyer, Pelumi Olajengbesi, stated that the conviction of Effiong without trial is “not welcome” under the country’s criminal justice system.
Olajengbesi said: “A good question is whether his expression, in any way, ridicules the court or interferes with the administration of justice? The answer is to the negative”
Also, the House of Representatives candidate in Akwa Ibom, Clement Jimbo, embarked on a solo protest walk in Uyo over the committal of Effiong.
Some inscriptions on the placard read: “My generation cannot be cowed to silence by the judiciary. #FreeInibeheEffiong” “Allow my generation to breathe” and “My generation is more. Respect our rights.”
Meanwhile, the President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Olumide Akpata, has assured that Effiong will be released.
Akpata said the NBA would investigate to determine what transpired between Effiong and Justice Obot, before deciding on the next steps.