Michy Ranny pressed the phone against his ear to hear the news once more as the caller repeated, “We won the case!” He dropped the phone from his ear, grinned and began dialing friends and family to announce his freedom.
Mr. Ranny and 23 others won a case against the Nigerian government, Tuesday. They were prisoners on death row in Libya, rescued during the Libyan uprising but were re-imprisoned by the Nigerian government upon touch down in Abuja in February last year. President Goodluck Jonathan’s security adviser, Owoye Azazi, reportedly ordered their imprisonment.
The judge declared that it was illegal for the comptroller general of Nigerian Prisons and the National Security Adviser to imprison the Libya-condemned Nigerians. The judge awarded Mr. Ranny and fellow detainees damages of N100,000.00 each.
Treacherous road to Italy
Mr. Ranny, 32, from Edo state, fleeing poverty and unemployment in Nigeria, was travelling by land to Italy, an illegal and dangerous journey, in December 2007, when he was arrested in the Libyan city of Gath.
He and 19 others, Nigerians, Chadians and Ghanaians, were arrested on December 29, 2007 after the Libyan police raided a holding camp in Gath notorious for holding illegal migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.
They were in the camp resting and planning a final journey to another holding camp on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea where they would board a boat to the Island of Lampedusa and, ultimately, Italy.
Mr. Ranny was later grouped with 35 other illegal migrants, dragged to court and charged with murder.
“I was thinking they were going to charge us with emigration offences and deport us to our countries,” he said.
“I was shocked when the charges (read in Arabic) were interpreted to us saying we were murderers.”
In less than four months, Mr. Ranny and four others from the pack of 35 were convicted and sentenced to death.
“The rest were given various degrees of milder sentences. We had no lawyer and did not understand the proceedings, everything was done in Arabic,” he said.
Branded for the hangman’s noose, he was transported to the Abu Salim prisons, Tripoli, notorious for human rights abuses of activists, and infamous for the 1994 Abu Salim Prison massacre.
Before the Libya uprising of 2011, the Abu Salim prison held death row prisoners and activists opposed to the tyrannical rule of Muammar Ghadaffi.
“There, we met over 1000 Nigerians already on death row. Some have been there for over 30 years,” he said.
Mr. Ranny said he witnessed executions of at least ten Nigerian prisoners in Abu Salim. Three others gave up on hope and committed suicide.
“We started grouping and writing letters to government officials in Nigeria, including the president and the National Assembly. We also wrote to the Nigerian embassy in Tripoli and human rights activists like Gani Fawehinmi to complain about our trial and ordeal in prison,” he said.
After three years of letter writing, their words drew sympathy from Abike Dabiri, the chairperson House of Reps Diaspora committee, and a human rights group, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP).
Both bodies led negotiations between the Nigerian government and the ousted Libyan president, Muammar Ghadaffi, who reduced the sentence to life imprisonment.
A greater pardon came with the Libyan revolution. On February 20, the National Transition Council (NTC) soldiers captured the prison, ripped its gates apart, setting all prisoners free.
“Immediately, I called my family in Nigeria and they sent money to me; so I can come back. But there were no commercial flights,” he said.
He joined other mates in the Nigerian embassy and was rescued to Nigeria, alongside other stranded Nigerians, two days later.
No prisoner exchange treaty
On arrival at the Abuja airport, 24 of them were spotted and arrested by a combined squad of soldiers and the police on the orders of the National Security Adviser (NSA). They were transported to the United Nations camp in Abuja and later transferred to Kuje prison.
On April 26, 2011, they were released from Kuje prison after Femi Falana filed a suit against the government on their behalf.
“Their arrest and imprisonment were illegal,” Samuel Ogala, Mr. Ranny’s counsel said.
“Nigeria has no prisoner exchange treaty with the Libyan government. In Nigeria, my clients are free men and it is illegal for any Nigerian government apparatus to imprison them for a sentence passed in Libya.”
The defence counsel argued that the Nigerian Prisons acted on the directives of the NSA who wanted the Libya-convicted Nigerians held for screening before they are allowed back into the Nigerian society.
“The NSA has no such powers in both immigration and prison act,” Mr. Ogala argued.
The judge, Bilikisu Aliyu, ruled that the NSA acted illegally, saying the arrest of the 24 Libya-convicted Nigerians was a breach of their rights.
“I am happy Nigeria realised that what they did to me was wrong,” Mr. Ranny, who now works as a store keeper in Abuja, said, smiling.
“I am most grateful that I am free and out of Ghadaffi’s death prison.”