The Commissioner for Information in Ebonyi State, Uchenna Orji, has denied allegations that the state government is behind the arrest and prosecution of a detained catholic priest in the state, Timothy Ngwuta.
In a statement on Wednesday, the commissioner said Mr Ngwuta was arrested by “surveillance youths and vigilant team” from Nwori village in the community when the cleric wanted to recover a vehicle said to have been abandoned by armed men.
Mr Ngwuta was arrested on December 11, 2021 and released on bail 12 days later, on health grounds after he was allegedly tortured by security agencies.
He was rearrested on March 8, 2022 and arraigned in court on March 11, for alleged kidnapping, attack and murder of police officers and promoting the protracted Effium/Ezza Effium intra-communal war, among others.
The cleric hails from Umuezekaoha Ezza Effium in Ohaukwu Local Government Area of the state.
The Catholic Church had alleged that efforts to secure the release of the cleric on bail have been hampered by the Executive Order allegedly made by the Ebonyi State Government preventing any court in the state from entertaining matters relating to the crisis.
Matthew Uzoma Opoke, the Chancellor of the Catholic Diocese of Abakiliki, the Ebonyi State capital, stated this in a statement on Sunday.
He said the priest had been remanded at Abakiliki Correctional Centre and that their latest attempt to secure his release on Tuesday, April 12, was unsuccessful.
But, Mr Orji said the matter has to do with “a serious security concern” and that it is handled by the community and security operatives.
“Many people suspected to be behind the crime in Effium/Ezza Effium are already facing trial and that of Reverend Father Timothy Ngwuta cannot be an exception,” Mr Orji said.
He said the state government had earlier chosen to remain silent over the allegations due to the respect the government has for the Catholic Church.
The commissioner said the government was forced to make clarifications following “series of social media posts and unguided print conversations” against it concerning the cleric’s arrest and detention.
Mr Orji stressed that although Governor Dave Umahi has “unbridled love for servants of God no matter their faith and has deep respect and shared collaborations with the Catholic Church,” he cannot turn a blind eye on the allegation of promoting communal war, on the basis of religion.
“The offence of conspiracy to promote communal war is (being) viewed seriously by the laws of Ebonyi State and cannot be sacrificed at the altar of religion. More so, we have not been told that Reverend Father Timothy Ngwuta is infallible,” he added.
Mr Orji urged those he accused of politicising the crisis to allow security agencies to do their work.
The commissioner assured the public that justice would be available to both the victims and the accused stressing that “justice has limitless jurisdiction and applies to all persons no matter their class or faith.”
Why the priest was linked to the crisis
Effium/Ezza Effium has been enmeshed in an intra-communal crisis for a long time now. Several persons have been killed and properties worth millions of naira destroyed in the raging crisis.
On November 3, last year, five engineers from NELAN Engineering Ltd, who were on duty visit to a ring roa being constructed around Ezza Effium, were killed by armed men suspected to have come from a section of the warring community.
Again, on November 28, the armed men attacked security operatives who were in search of the corpses of the five NELAN Engineers.
Two security operatives were killed in the attack, according to Mr Or, the information commissioner in the state.
Mr Ngwuta hails from Umuezekaoha Ezza Effium, a section of the warring community where the attack reportedly occurred.
A Toyota Sienna vehicle, believed to have been used by the armed men, was abandoned at the scene of the attack on security operatives.
The state government accused the cleric of visiting the scene of the attack alongside two other suspects and attempting to recover the vehicle.
But Mr Opoke, the chancellor of the church, said what happened was that the priest went there to help his friend, Jude Ariom, to retrieve “a vehicle that was parked there.”
Mr Opoke said the priest obtained a clearance from Mbeke Police Divisional Headquarters to move the vehicle, but “was not aware that the vehicle was used in the commission of crimes as alleged.”
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