Rights advocacy group, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, SERAP, has written President Muhammadu Buhari, demanding the immediate and unconditional release of Nigerian judges arrested in the midnight of Saturday by operatives of the Department of State Services (DSS).
The group, which also wrote the United Nations on the case, threatened to take legal action, both locally and internationally, against the President, should the arrested judges not be immediately freed.
The DSS has explained that the judges are being investigated for corruption and also gave figures of amounts it had recovered from them in a statement on Saturday, but SERAP maintains in its own statement that while it fully supported Buhari’s anti-corruption war, it viewed the clampdown on judges as a “blow on the independence of the judiciary and a dangerous precedent that should not be allowed to stand”.
The group fears that if the development is allowed to stand or continue, it would make judges susceptible to pressure from the executive and spell the final collapse of judiciary’s independence.
“We are seriously concerned about the wave of arrests, intimidation and harassment of judges across the country by the DSS. While we fully support the government’s efforts to eradicate judicial corruption, we cannot accept anti-corruption strategies and methods which patently offend the rule of law and undermine the authority, integrity, sanctity and independence of the judiciary.
“SERAP believes that strategies and methods to sanction suspected corrupt judges must never have an inhibiting or chilling effect on the authority, sanctity, integrity and independence of the judiciary.
“The uncertainty of the processes and grounds on which suspected corrupt judges can be sanctioned would affect the capacity of all judges to act independently, and the public confidence in the judiciary.
“Judges, like other constitutional functionaries, must face the law if they depart from or deceive the law, such as when they are suspected of engaging in corruption. But what the DSS has done is a blow to the independence of judiciary, and a dangerous precedent that should not be allowed to stand.
“The value of the principle of judicial independence is that it protects judges from arbitrary sanctions by the government. The way this country dispenses justice and treats its judges will show the moral and legal character to which it can pretend,” SERAP said.
The group added: “Judicial accountability must respect the fundamental principles of the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers, and its proceedings must be in line with constitutional and international standards of due process and fair trial.
“Indeed, international standards require that the bodies responsible for sanctioning corrupt judges should be independent from the government, and that any legal sanction against suspected corrupt judges must be determined in accordance with well-established procedures that guarantee the rights of judges to a fair and transparent trial, and to an independent review.”
The Nigerian Bar Association has also called for the immediate and unconditional release of the judges.
The group said their arrest was unconstitutional, declaring a state of emergency in the judiciary.
It says the arrests are disturbing and unconstitutional, describing it a situation that had never been witnessed.
The President of the NBA, Mr Abubakar Mahmoud, at a briefing in Lagos, warned the Federal Government of “grave consequences” should the demands not be met.
Mr Mahmoud said two Supreme Court justices, Inyang Okoro and Sylvester Ngwuta, were “abducted” with their families.
The Governor of Ekiti State, Ayodele Fayose, also condemned the arrest. He asked if the affected judges had been reported to the National Judicial Council (NJC), the body saddled with the responsibilities of investigating and sanctioning erring judges. “Were the affected judges ever invited by the DSS and they refused to honour the invitation?”
He described the arrests as a direct assault on the judiciary.
Governor Fayose, who addressed reporters in Ado-Ekiti on Saturday, said: “It should now be obvious to all Nigerians and the international community that democracy is under threat in Nigeria and Nigerians must rise to save democracy from being truncated.”