Letter from The President: Innocent until?

Fri, 10 Jun 2005 Source: J. A. Fukuor/Daily Dispatch

Countrymen and women, loyalists and opponents, something very interesting happened in Sikaman last week. I was very delighted when I heard the news that the SUSPECTED armed robber, Atta Ayi, had filed a motion at an Accra High Court charging two senior police officers with contempt. It is a bold move which I expect to impact positively on the administration of justice in Sikaman. Since his arrest, Atta Ayi?s name has become synonymous with armed robbery. He?s been portrayed as the father of all armed robbers. He is supposed to be the headmaster of the armed robbery training school. According to the police, all their armed robbery suspects have been trained and duly certified as qualified miscreants by Atta Ayi himself. Even those who have the nerve to call me an armed robber compare me with Atta Ayi.

I know that after reading this letter some of you will write to me and complain that I am defending an armed robber. Well, you might say so but as far as I am concerned, Atta Ayi is, for now, not an armed robber ? he?s a mere suspect ? until the courts determine otherwise.

It appears to me that the whole nation convicted Atta Ayi even before his trial began. That is why it was so difficult for Atta Ayi and his alleged accomplices to receive legal representation. No lawyer in Sikaman wanted to defend a suspect who had already been convicted. I therefore commend those who have decided against all odd to go to Atta Ayi?s defence. Atta Ayi and his lawyers, however, are still in a very serious dilemma, which I largely blame on the police and the media.

The police administration and its officials have been behaving as if they don?t have any legal knowledge. I would have liked to give them the benefit of the doubt. But I can?t ? not after the IGP declared recently that some officers have no legal knowledge at all. The IGP said this was ?unpardonable?. I say it is very stupid and dangerous. How can anyone enforce a law he knows nothing about. Most of our police officers are walking about without any knowledge about the basic legal principle that a person is innocent until proven guilt. Therefore when Atta Ayi was arrested, the whole police administration was thrown into jubilation because they had caught ?the? armed robber. They wasted no time in declaring him guilty. And, dare I say, punished him for his crimes. That was why Atta Ayi?s face was puffy and blood was oozing from his eyelids and his briefs when he was put on ?exhibition?. When I saw those pictures, the first thought that occurred to me was ?Oh, my God, they?ve crushed his balls!? I hope that his balls are intact though.

When the police put him on exhibition, they failed to make clear to the media that the guy, they had arrested was a suspected armed robber. They gleefully described him as the NOTORIOUS armed robber who had escaped arrest on so many occasions. This was yet another indication that that those who arrested him had already tried and convicted him.

I didn?t expect the media to do any better when they were given the information about Atta Ayi?s arrest. And they proved me right. They transmitted what they?d been told by the police, telling the whole nation in jubilant tones that the ?NOTORIOUS? armed robber had been arrested. And the gullible citizens swallowed everything ? hook, line and sinker. Whiles radio presenters heaped praises on the police for a job well done, their listeners demanded his immediate execution. Rich men started jubilating that they can rest easy because their number one tormentor had been arrested. Pastors prayed in thanksgiving for God?s abundant mercy in helping the police to arrest ?the nation wrecker called Atta Ayi?.

Now Atta Ayi is fighting for his rights and I am very happy for him. He might not be my favourite citizen but he ? like any other citizen of the land ? has rights which must be protected, especially by the police. Whether he will succeed in his attempt to get the police officers punished for contempt is a different matter altogether.

For me, the most important thing is that Atta Ayi?s action against the police should make us pause for a moment and reconsider how we treat suspects. The police and the media, especially, should learn to be a little more professional in how they portray suspects. They should make sure that their actions and pronouncements do not create the impression that the principle of ?innocent until proven guilty? has been thrown to the dogs. You see, it?s all a matter of language. A suspect is a suspect, and he must be described as such. One becomes notorious only after the courts have convicted him repeatedly for the same or separate offence. The police cannot determine the notoriety of an alleged criminal. I expect the media to point this out to the police any time a suspect is arrested and described with words other than ?suspect?.

History is replete with stories of people who were arrested, convicted, jailed (or even executed) for offences they did not commit only for their convictions to be overturned later. We have numerous stories of people who were arrested amidst so much fanfare who were later proven to be innocent and acquitted. Others were tried with evidence planted by the police. Remember OJ Simpson? In some other cases, police arrested people and arraigned them before court with no evidence. Remember Jahinfo from Dagbon? It is for these reasons that the law states clearly that only the courts can declare a person guilty on the basis on available evidence. This basic legal principle is for our protection ? yours and mine. And we all have to defend it. When the police and the media declare a suspect guilty by describing him as ?notorious so-and-so? we are all obliged to raise eyebrows. Today Atta Ayi is the ?notorious armed robber?. Tomorrow, you never know, the police might pick you up and describe you as a notorious serial killer. You could be lynched even before arrangements are made for your arrest only for us to realize sometime later that you were not the actual serial killer. You only had a nose like his.

Excellently yours,

J. A. Fukuor

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

Columnist: J. A. Fukuor/Daily Dispatch