SERAP seeks probe of unfair treatment of former Kebbi state acting CJ Elizabeth Karatu

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Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has condemned “the harassment, intimidation and unfair treatment of the former acting Chief Judge of Kebbi State, Elizabeth Karatu, who was barred from gaining access to her courtroom to deliver certain judgment by an official of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defense Corps (NSCDC), who claimed he was acting based on the directive given to him by the management.”

The organization urged the Chairman of the National Judicial Council (NJC) and Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad to: “publicly condemn the unfair treatment of Justice Karatu and urgently refer the matter to appropriate authorities for a prompt, thorough and effective investigation in order to ensure that those responsible for this unlawful act are named and shamed and brought to justice.”

In a video clip, Justice Karatu is heard saying: “I am the most senior judge in this court and I am here to deliver my judgement. Can you imagine? Which management gave you the order? Today is my last day to be here and it is my right to be here. I have come to deliver my judgement. As far as I am concerned, everybody in this court is my junior and I need a courtroom to deliver my judgment.”

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Reacting, SERAP in a statement today by its deputy director Kolawole Oluwadare, said: “Barring Justice Karatu from delivering judgment is an intolerable act of intimidation against the highest judicial authority in Kebbi State at the material time. Regardless of any allegations that may have been levelled against her, it is clear that Justice Karatu has been unfairly treated by the apparently unlawful actions of the Kebbi State governor, Mr Atiku Bagudu and the NSCDC barring her from gaining access to her courtroom to rule on cases.”

According to SERAP, “Barring Justice Karatu from gaining access to her courtroom is entirely incompatible with the sacred principle of judicial independence, and the failure by the authorities to observe important procedural guarantees here is a textbook case of executive rascality. SERAP will vigorously pursue justice in this case, to ensure that this shameful act does not affect the work of other judges or undermine their ability to freely and effectively perform their judicial duties.”

The statement read in part: “The NJC should immediately set up a panel to thoroughly and effectively investigate the alleged role played by the new acting Chief Judge of Kebbi State, Justice Suleiman Mohammed Ambursa in the unfair treatment, harassment and intimidation of Justice Karatu, and if there is sufficient and relevant admissible evidence, to ensure appropriate disciplinary measures and sanctions against him.”

“The ultimate responsibility for the crisis in Kebbi State’s judiciary lies with governor Bagudu. To prevent further erosion of the constitutional principles of judicial independence and separation of powers, the governor must publicly apologise for the blatant infraction of Justice Kataru’s human rights, and ensure her access to justice and effective remedies, including reparation.”

“It is clear that the rule of law in Kebbi State is under siege. SERAP urges the government of governor Bagudu to refrain from any threats or interference that may further hamper the court’s independence and authority as the supreme guardian of the Nigerian constitution and legislation.”

“By putting the court entrance under lock, the government of governor Bagudu and the NSCDC have obstructed justice, a form of corruption under the UN Convention against Corruption to which Nigeria is a state party, as they have apparently unlawfully stopped Justice Karatu from performing her judicial duties and delivering certain judgment on the eve of her retirement.”

“The apparently arbitrary actions by governor Bagudu and the NSCDC also amount to an unlawful interference with Justice Karatu’s private and professional life, contrary to the Nigerian Constitution of 1999 (as amended) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights to which Nigeria is a state party.”

“The Nigerian constitution and these human rights treaties afford legal protection against arbitrary interference by the authorities, including in Kebbi State. The unfair treatment and intimidation of Justice Karatu, apart from being incompatible with the rule of law, has had tangible consequences for her material well-being and her family.”

“Such arbitrary and illegal actions expose judges at both the federal and state levels to political and executive pressure, endangering their independence and impartiality.”

“Under our laws, judges can be removed only in accordance with an objective, independent procedure prescribed by law. Any sanctions or disciplinary procedures for judges must ensure sufficient separation of the judiciary from other branches of State power and provide appropriate guarantees against abuse and misuse of disciplinary measures and sanctions to the detriment of judicial independence.” 

“Judges must be free to carry out their professional duties without political interference and must be protected, in law and in practice, from attack, harassment or persecution as they carry out their professional activities.”

“Courts play a major role in the fight against corruption, and ensuring that victims or potential victims of human rights violations obtain effective remedies and protection, that perpetrators of human rights violations are brought to justice.”

“But when judges are unfairly treated, the role of the judicial system to act as check and balance on the other branches of government, ensure that laws of the legislative and the acts of the executive comply with the rule of law, is seriously eroded.”

Last week, a trending video clip showed an official of the NSCDC barring Justice Karatu, from gaining access to a courtroom. The judge, who was billed to retire on July 5, was supposed to rule on cases on July 4, her last day in office. Mrs Karatu, until her retirement, was the most senior judge in Kebbi State judiciary. The civil defence official barricaded the road as he prevented the senior judge and her police orderly from gaining access to the court premises.

Justice Karatu, a Christian, was appointed acting chief judge of Kebbi State in October 2018, following the retirement of the former chief judge, Bala Mairiga, who left the bench the same month. The Kebbi State House of Assembly refused to confirm Mrs Karatu as the substantive CJ after the state governor, Atiku Bagudu, sent her name to the House, for confirmation.

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