A human rights group, Civil Rights Council, has condemned the arrest and continued detention of Agba Jalingo by the government of Cross River State and demands his immediate release.
In a statement jointly signed by Arochukwu Ogbonna Esq., National Coordinator; and Mercy Christopher, Legal Adviser, the group said Jalingo, a journalist and a human rights activist, was arrested on the 22nd of August and remanded in prison over allegations of treasonable felony, and his alleged threats through various publications to incite the removal of the Governor of Cross River State, Ben Ayade.
According to the group, circumstances surrounding his arrest showed that the suspect was arrested over an article in which he alleged corruption and the diversion of N500 million meant for the state's micro finance bank in Calabar.
Amongst the four-count charge brought against Jalingo on his arraignment at the Federal High Court Calabar, count two stated thus: “That you, Agba Jalingo, 'M' on or about the 2nd of July 2019, at about 10am at No. 2, Marian Road, Calabar, within the jurisdiction of this honourable court, did make and publish false statement on crossriverwatch.com and facebook.com/story titled: “How Ayade approved and diverted N500m for Cross River Micro Finance” in order to cause alarm, hatred and disturb public peace in Calabar, for the purpose of bringing down the reputation of the Executive Governor of Cross River State, His Excellency, Senator Professor Ben Ayade, and thereby committed an offence punishable under Section 59 of the Criminal Code Act, Cap C38, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004.”
However, the article published by Jalingo opined that Gov. Ayade diverted public funds and noted that “Governor Ayade will do Cross Riverians a whole lot of good by coming public to tell the people of Cross River state, where the N500million he released for the Cross River state Micro-Finance bank is, because the money is certainly not in that bank.”
The Civil Rights Council questioned how a demand for accountability could “cause fear and alarm to the public or to disturb the public peace” as provided in Section 59 of the Criminal Code.
The rights group argued that Jalingo's publication is completely covered by Section 39 (1 & 2) of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria which states that “every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.”
It said it is clear that the decision by the government to arrest Jalingo instead of accounting for the administration of the bank or instituting a libel or defamation case against him only goes to show that Gov Ayade has a case to answer, stressing that the refusal of the Federal High Court Calabar to grant bail and also the fact that Justice Simon Amobeda has implicated himself in a leaked biased statement and therefore forced to excuse himself from the case shows a deliberate attempt to subvert justice.
The advocacy group advised the government not to use the machinery of the state to maliciously prosecute political opponents who criticize the government and demand transparency. Should the government of the people be used as a tool against the people and not for the people? The group queried.
Emphasizing that Nigeria is a state that practices democracy, and that no democracy can survive when the rights of the people are stripped and trampled upon by the leaders they elected to represent their interest, it said: "The violation of human rights and the cases of arbitrary incarceration of human rights activist and journalist of repute like Agba Jalingo by the government in power are sadly growing with impunity and Nigerians need their leaders to uphold the mandate upon which they were called to serve".
Civil Rights Council urged the Government of Cross River state to release Agba Jalingo as criticism of a Government is not outlawed in a democracy and also stated that the Federal High Court Calabar should also take on judicial activism, promote human rights and defend the law it has sworn to uphold in all fairness.