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How SARS tortured, labelled us ‘Otokoto’ in Onitsha – Nwankwo

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Dr Justin Ogochukwu Nwankwo spent 81 days inside the dreaded torture facility operated by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), at Awkuzu, in Oyi local government area in Anambra state. In this interview with ONYINYE EKWEALOR, Nwankwo shares his experience at the hands of the security operatives.

Can you briefly explain the reason you appeared before the Anambra state Panel of Enquiry on Police Brutality and Killings?

The core ingredients of the petition were brutality, torture and near-death experience at the Awkuzu SARS. For 81 days, I was tortured, castrated and almost killed at the Awkuzu SARS. However, by the glory of God, we survived. Most painful is that, up till today, there is no tangible charge that the police have presented in court against us. So, for 81days, we were arrested, detained and discharged without any charge. That is why we have approached this panel of inquiry to let the world know that, after seven years, we have not got any apology from the police or government for the 81 days of torture.

After the 81 days, did you seek a redress? 

Yes, at some point, it was a collective redress we sought. Since the matter was a product of an institution, there was no way we could have filed for individual redress except for this platform of panel of inquiry. At that time, the single matter was compensation for the demolished hotel as a whole, not for individual losses and the matter is even still hanging on the line, with the owner of the hotel amidst delays from government parastatals. 

What is your prayer?

The major thing I need is that the panel should clear my name. When this incidence happened, we were tagged the Otokoto in Onitsha. So, I want the panel to set us free from what I call the mental torture and, secondly, to pay us for damages that inflicted on us by the Awkuzu SARS through demolition of the hotel.

What physical injures did you sustain?

Most significant physical injury I sustained at the time of torture was a total rupture of my scrotum, it was totally damaged. My neck was tied with rope and the rope was dragged at both until I had the scar on my neck. If I open my body, you will see series of maps incurred by the hot iron pressed on my back. There were multiple bodily injuries on me by the Awkuzu SARS police led by CSP James Nwafor.

Reading about this incident some years back, two skulls were said to have been found in a room; as the manager of the hotel, how would you say those skulls got there?

Even the police can’t make a case from this because when they come out, we will come out as well.  It is quite simple, somebody lodged in that room with a name. The manifest of the hotel was supposed to be given to the police before 7am which was the normal protocol. We gave the manifest to the police and a copy to the CID headquarters. The list contained all those who lodged in the hotel, including the room where the skulls were found (Room 102). So, the person who brought the skills was the person who lodged there and, as the time the police came there by 8am, the person was nowhere to be found. So, somebody lodged in the room. Though I can’t remember the name, as at that time, the name was clear and we told the police about it. In fact, the first injury I got was when I was insisting that somebody lodged in that room and the names of the people that lodged there for the day were forwarded to the CID and area command Onitsha.

It is not a standard practice to start checking the bags of those that lodge in the hotel. Again, the hotel is located inside the market. 80 to 90 percent of people who lodge there are traders, most of them coming to buy fish. How do we place who brought what to the room? Room 102 was lodged and we submitted the manifest before 7am to the police, so the name of the person who lodged there was in the manifest.

Do you suspect any foul play in the human skulls find?

Yes, our instinct is clear on this. The owner of the hotel is a big land agent in Onitsha. What happened was the effect of what happens in hotel and motor park businesses. He was set up by his adversaries who looked for avenues to get at him. The incident was a product of land and park business and the hotel was the only point where one can handicap the man. The staff of the company was not part of this but we suffered. We suffered with him all the days and why you see the police reluctant is that the hotel was demolished on the same day we were arrested. So, the police started the investigation and ended it the same day, the government came and demolished the hotel same day. In one day, the executive, judiciary and legislature carried out their duty, it was pathetic how all this happened in one day.

Even the former governor of Anambra state, Mr Peter Obi, who said there was a security report against the hotel, we have asked him severally to produce the report since there was an investigation. Proper investigation would have been carried out and a court order should have been given to demolish the hotel but none of this happened. On the second night of our arrest, we got news that the hotel had been demolished without any opportunity for us to, at least, evacuate our personal and vital belongings.

How can you describe the level of torture you went through?

The torture was horrible, it is painful to take an innocent man, who the law has not proven otherwise and treat him like a man of no means. One of the exhibits tendered to the panel is a publication by Sun Newspaper, showing us to the world as “Otokoto in Onitsha.” Is that not enough torture to a PhD holder at the time? They stripped off our clothes and muddled 13 of us including the owner of the hotel into the police van and took us straight to the torture camp. They gave us the highest torture especially myself because they wanted me to join the prosecution team to the owner of the hotel. I was given too much torture for me to agree that there were activities of kidnapping in the hotel which does not exist and that was what I told the police. So, hearing that my scrotum was destroyed, I was hanged, my hairs were pulled, I was forced to thumb print on a statement written by an illiterate amongst other torture for 81days. It was a product of trying to force me, who was the second in command of the hotel, to agree that ill activities were carried out in the hotel.

Did you, at any point, witness near-death experience?

On several occasions, I passed out. How I got to know I had passed out was when I came to and noticed the water that might have been used to revive me. Intermittently on the day of the arrest, I received about three buckets of water, this is just on the day of arrest. We were arrested in the morning in a Black Maria car, taken to nearly all the police station in Onitsha and arrived at 3:30 in Awkuzu torture hall where the torture began.

How did they get to release you after the 81 days?

There was heavy pressure. The police acknowledged to our lawyers that their hands were tied and the government had demolished the building and there was nothing they could do. They said they were waiting for further instructions from the government. So, at the end of the day, they manufactured a case, charged us to court on three grounds. Heavy human rights pressure was brought on them to free us or charge us to court if they claimed they had anything against us. Also, the hotel had been demolished and the government, through other proxies, was trying to settle the matter because what they proposed did not appeal to the owner of the hotel. The arrangements failed and that led to our continued stay in the black cell.

Did the torture affect your ability to reproduce?

Kindly, the medical practitioners were highly competent and the did a good job and I was treated properly.

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