A trial that lasted almost 12 years reached a milestone on Thursday when Justice Ishaq Bello of the FCT High Court, Abuja, sentenced two police officers, Ezekiel Acheneje and Emmanuel Baba, to death for killing two of the six Igbo traders in Abuja on June 8, 2005.
The two policemen were found guilty of killing Augustina Arebu and Anthony Nwokike.
However, three other police officers, including a then deputy commissioner of police — Danjuma Ibrahim, Nicholas Zakaria, and Sadiq Salami — were set free, discharged and acquitted by the court for want of evidence.
A sixth accused police officer, Othman Abdulsalam, has been at large since the case started and had no legal representation.
Delivering judgement in a nine-count criminal charge brought by the federal government against the police officers, Mr. Bello said the court had no option than to convict the two men on account of their own confessional statements that they shot the two traders based on instruction from superior officers.
Mr. Bello said the action of the two police officers was callous and barbaric because by law, they were supposed to preserve the lives of innocent citizens.
The judge further said that their action was condemnable because there was no evidence that the two traders did anything to constitute threat to police at the time they were shot dead.
Justice Bello said that the killing of the two traders was particularly painful because they were arrested by members of the public alive and handed over to the police only for the same police, to take laws into their hands by summarily executing them.
The judge discountenanced the retraction of the confessional statements during the trial by the two convicts.
He described the retraction as an afterthought, because the statements by the convicted police officers were outright confessional.
The case centred on the alleged extra-judicial killing of five young auto-spare parts dealers in Apo, a satellite town in Abuja, and a young woman, by police officers on the night of June 7, 2005.
The victims, Ekene Isaac Mgbe, Ifeanyi Ozor, Chinedu Meniru, Paulinus Ogbonna, Anthony Nwokike, and Augustina Arebu, were said to be returning from a night club when they were stopped at a police checkpoint.
The police had claimed that the victims, aged between 21 and 25 years, were members of an armed robbery gang that had opened fire on the officers when accosted at the checkpoint.
But a judicial panel of inquiry set up by former President Olusegun Obasanjo found the police account to be false and recommended the trial of the six officers for extra-judicial killings.
The indicted officers are Danjuma Ibrahim, Othman Abdulsalami (now at large), Nicholas Zakaria, Ezekiel Acheneje, Baba Emmanuel, and Sadiq Salami. The defendants had pleaded not guilty to the charges.
But 12 years later, the trial continued to drag on in court.
The five officers accused of the killings and eight other police witnesses eventually testified before the panel of inquiry that Danjuma Ibrahim, the most senior of the accused officers, had allegedly ordered the killings of the youth.
According to the report of the panel, the victims were at a nightclub located at Gimbiya Street, Area 11, in Abuja that night of June 7, 2005 when they had a face-off with Mr. Ibrahim after the only female among the victims, Augustina Arebu, allegedly turned down romantic advances of the senior police officer.
Mr. Ibrahim had allegedly stormed out of the night club to a police checkpoint at the end of the street and told the officers on duty that he had sited a group of armed robbers in the area.
According to the panel’s report, which formed the bulk of the evidence in court, when the six unwary young people later arrived at the checkpoint in their car, Mr. Ibrahim allegedly had the car blocked and ordered the officers to shoot at the occupants.
Four of the six died on the spot, but two of them, Mr. Nwokike and Ms. Arebu, survived the initial onslaught.
They were later killed by the two convicted police officers in the early hours of June 8 on the grounds that they attempted to escape.
THREE COPS FREED
The three other police officers involved, Danjuma Ibrahim, Nicholas Zakaria and Sadiq Salami, who were charged with conspiracy and culpable homicide, contrary to Section 97 and 221 of the penal code, were discharged and acquitted by the court for want of evidence.
Justice Bello said from the totality of the evidence placed before the court, the charge of conspiracy cannot be established against them because of the inability of the prosecution to convince the court that the men met and agreed to kill the six traders.
The judge said in the case of the Mr. Ibrahim, who was alleged to have seized an AK 47 and shot the traders in their Peugeot 406 on that fateful day, the allegation collapsed in the face of contradictions from two prosecution witnesses that Mr. Ibrahim never seized a gun or fired at the traders.
The judge added that if the fingerprint of the deputy police commissioner had been taken, it could have been established whether he handled the AK 47 used in killing the traders on the day of the incident.
On the other four victims shot to death, the judge said the issue remained ambiguous and vague because the prosecution was unable to establish those responsible for their murder.
The judge said although a witness told the court that Mr. Ibrahim was responsible for the shooting of the four traders, another witness said it was a patrol team invited to the scene of the robbery incident that fired at the vehicle of the traders when they allegedly refused to stop at a stop and search point mounted by the police to track down the suspected robbers that had allegedly robbed Crown Guest Inn at Gimbiya Street.
Justice Bello added that in the face of the contradiction, it was particularly impossible to hold anyone responsible for the death of the traders. More so when no name was mentioned of the members of the patrol team invited to reinforce the ambush squad that was trailing the suspected robbers.
Mr. Bello also said the six traders created suspicion when they reversed at the checkpoint, inciting the police officers.
The judge said he was not in doubt that the occupants failed to stop when asked to, and that the decision not to stop may have created suspicion.