Convicted soldiers get life sentences commuted
Twenty-seven soldiers of the 15th Nigerian Battalion that served in the United Nations Mission in Liberia earlier sentenced to life jail terms by a Military Court Martial, have had their sentences commuted to seven years jail terms.
They were court-martialed for demonstrating on the streets of Akure, Ondo State, in July last year over unpaid allowances.
Giving the update on the matter at a joint press conference, Director of Army Public Relations, Brig-Gen. Chris Olukolade, and Director Army Legal Services, Brig-Gen. Abdulkadir Abubakar, said the sentence of life imprisonment given to the convicted soldiers was commuted to seven years imprisonment and that the convicts were expected to have been moved into prison immediately.
“In arriving at the decision, the Nigerian Army authorities did not only consider the plea of mitigation by the counsel to the soldiers in which they pleaded for mercy as part of their responsibilities to their clients, but also the army's attempt to achieve justice and equity in the delivery of justice. Accordingly, the findings of the General Court-Martial have been confirmed. The sentence of life imprisonment given to all the convicted soldiers has however been commuted to seven years imprisonment”, he said.
Olukolade and his colleague dismissed insinuations that the confirmation came rather too late since the mandatory 60 days after judgement allowed for such had expired. They said the Armed Forces Act was very clear on the proceeding. “The proceedings must transmit from court-martialed venue to the confirming authority within 60 days and this was done within the statutory period.”
They also said the fate of the officers that were involved in the mistakes that led to the delay of the payment which resulted in the protest by the soldiers will be determined by Army Council soon.
“They (officers) were tried for negligence and are expected to be duly punished in line with the outcome of the court martial. The Army Council is the approving authority for the confirmation of their punishment and any moment after now they will sit and is only after that we will discuss their punishment. But for now those cases remain subjudice”.
Olukolade, reading the Army Headquarter's confirmation, said: “we wish to place on record our observations on the flurry of public sentiments which the trial process had generated while it lasted. Of utmost interest to us was the resolve on the part of the lawyers, who participated in the process to spearhead a media campaign which tended to sensationalise the entire process.
“By virture of their calling, one would have expected much more diligence than was exhibited. That a court-martial duly constituted, following the provisions of the Armed Forces Act, is a court of competent jurisdiction under extant Nigerian law is not any way in doubt.
“The fact that matters before a court are not subject to public debate wither on the pages of newspapers or on television screens or other organs of the mass media might be strange to laymen, but not to lawyers.”
Olukolade further said: “It must be stated in clear terms that what actually happened was that two teams were dispatched to pay two groups of soldiers that returned from the mission area – one in Makurdi and the other in Akure. The soldiers in Makurdi had collected their savings while in the mission area but those of Akure were to receive theirs on arrival back home. The team which started with the unit in Makurdi, mistook them for the unit that was yet to collect their savings and therefore paid them what should have been paid to the unit in Akure.
“On arrival in Akure, the team realised the error and was making necessary arrangements to correct the situation when some of the soldiers in Akure, resorted to rioting.
But lawyer to the convicts, Mr. Femi Falana, in a reaction to the confirmation of the sentences on his clients, condemned what he called the treatment meted to the soldiers and call for the “immediate release of the record of proceedings to enable us to challenge the charade at the court of appeal.”
He said: “On April 27, 2009, a court martial convicted and sentenced 27 soldiers to life sentence for protesting the stealing of $1m operational allowances paid to them by the UN through the Nigerian Army. The officers, who cornered the fund and exposed Nigeria to shame and ridicule were identified, tried but were only made to forfeit a rank by the same court martial.
“By commuting the life sentence to 7 years imprisonment, the army council attempted to redress the gross injustice which marred the inquisition of the victims of “authority stealing”.
He added that: “We had to sue the Chief of Army Staff when the verdict was not confirmed within the 60 days allowed by law, hence the belated confirmation announced today (yesterday),” he added.