When Precious Bernard was arrested in 2009 along with other staff of a pharmaceutical company located at Ikeja, Lagos, for theft, his thought was that a thorough investigation would prove his innocence.
That never happened! From Area F Police Command where he was initially locked up, Precious was transferred to the disbanded notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad, SARS where he was tortured and his alleged offence changed to armed robbery.
For four years, Precious languished at the Kirikiri Correctional Centre until a Non-Governmental Organisation, Anchor Heritage, took over his case and facilitated his release. Recounting his harrowing experience, Precious tells Encounter how four years of his life was wasted for an offence he did not commit.
Life Before Trouble Started
My name is Precious Obinna Bernard. I am from IsialaNgwa Local Government Area of Abia State but was born in Nassarawa State. My parents relocated to Lagos in 1999. While in Lagos, I decided to find a job so that I can also assist them. My first job was with a firm where I was paid N500. I was actually happy with the job because that was the first time I would earn an income. After a while, I moved out of my father’s house and started staying with a friend in Festac. I was doing all kinds of menial jobs until a friend got me a job in a security company.
I was initially posted to the Managing Director’s house as a security guard but was later transferred to a pharmaceutical company located at Ikeja. While working at the company, I decided to enroll for a part-time study in the Polytechnic. Because we run shifts, I pleaded with my supervisor to assign me on a permanent night shift so that I can have time for my studies. He graciously granted my request and even applauded my decision to go to school while working.
Illegal Night Business
While I was busy working permanent nights, I didn’t know that there were some illegal businesses going on in the company. At night, some employees will connive to remove some products being loaded into a truck. Although they later brought the proposal to me to join them, I told them that I didn’t want to be involved in their illegal activities.
Theft Gang Busted
Some of the employees stealing the products were eventually apprehended one night. Someone later alleged that since I was permanently on night shift, I would definitely be a member of the gang. When the Chief Security Officer of the company interrogated me, I told him I was not part of them and even brought my school documents to show him. He insisted that I was lying and took me to Area F Police Station with the staff that were actually caught.
Torture in SARS ‘Theatre’ Room
I spent two weeks at the Area ‘F’ Police Station before the matter was transferred to SARS. When I realised that the matter was getting very serious, I called my dad and informed him of the case. At SARS, some of those who were arrested were released after they gave the officers money. I remained there and was severely tortured because I didn’t have money to give them.
They took me to a place called ‘Theatre’ where I was severely tortured. They did all kinds of unimaginable things to me in that room just for me to admit that I was an armed robber. I was chained and a big tire placed on my back. The weight of the tire should be about 100kg but throughout my torture, I kept telling them I was innocent.
Theft Allegation Changed to Armed Robbery
After the torture episode in SARS custody, I was arraigned before an Ikeja Magistrate’s Court for conspiracy, armed robbery and possession of firearms. The charge was strange to me because I have never been involved in armed robbery in my life. I have also never touched a gun before not to talk of having it in my possession. The Police just manufactured those weighty allegations against me so that the court would remand me in prison since they were capital offences. As expected, I pleaded not guilty to the charges and was remanded in prison custody. The arraignment was the first and only time I appeared in court for the four years I was in prison.
Father Sells House
My father sold his house and gave the money to some lawyers who promised to facilitate my release, but nothing came out of it. At some point, my father who was also passing through humiliation over my matter almost gave up because members deserted the church he was pastoring. Sometimes he would call and tell me: “My son, I have prayed, I have spent everything, sold my properties, at the end no result. Anything that wants to happen should happen.” I had suicide thoughts several times but what kept me going was my involvement in the prison basketball team and other social events in the prison.
Anchor Heritage Intervention
When Anchor Heritage initially came to the prison to teach inmates paint-making, I was reluctant to participate because I had acquired other skills like soap and cream-making which I felt was useless as long as I am in prison. What, however, made me embrace them was the free legal service which they also provided. I attended their paint-making seminar and I joined the practical sessions. When I narrated my ordeal to their legal team, they promised to take up my case.
My father was initially skeptical about their promises to help due to his previous experience with other lawyers. True to their words, they took up my case and a new Magistrate who took over my trial was shocked that my file was on the court docket when there was no complainant in my case. Within hours of my appearance in court, my case was struck out and I was discharged and acquitted.
After I left the prison, things were a bit difficult for me. Fortunately for me, the painting skill I learnt in prison through Anchor Heritage became useful to me. The first person that gave me the opportunity to paint was one of the nurses in the hospital where I got a job as a receptionist. She said her husband wanted to paint their house and when I told her I could paint, she gave me the opportunity and the job came out fine.
When the Managing Director of the hospital also discovered that I could paint, he gave me the contract to paint part of the hospital and his five-bedroom duplex. The MD and his wife were very impressed when I finished the job.
After that job, more people started knowing about my handwork. On one occasion in the hospital, I overheard a patient on the phone saying that he needed a painter. When I heard that, I just went to the Secretary and sought her consent to talk to the patient. After she gave her consent, I went to meet the man and told him that I am a painter.
The patient took my Whatsapp number and moments later, he asked me if I can paint a two-bedroom flat immediately, I told him yes. I had to call one of my colleagues to please cover up for me at the hospital. I went with the man that same day to the place, gave him a quotation and he sent the money immediately to my surprise.
He sent someone to supervise me and to the glory of God, I delivered a good job. I have been getting so many other big painting jobs since then, and I am really grateful that I learnt that skill in prison. I have now employed other people who work with me and my biggest dream is to own a painting company.
The Nigeria justice system is very bad and should be reviewed. I just wasted four years of my life in prison for something I didn’t do. Initially when I came out of prison, I was always conscious of the stigma of being referred to as someone who has spent years in prison.
With my busy schedule now painting houses in Lagos and other states, I am even grateful to God for the experience of being in prison. I believe that everything happened for a reason and God knows why he had to allow me to suffer such injustice. I am a better person now and I am grateful to everyone that has assisted me.