According to a report by SaharaReporters, the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NiDCOM) has revealed that Itunu Babalola, a Nigerian lady, who is presently being detained in Cote d’Ivoire was wrongfully charged and incarcerated for a crime she did not commit.
NIDCOM, however, said plans were underway by the government to engage the services of a lawyer to prove the innocence of the lady at the Court of Appeal.
Itunu, a trader based in Bondoukou, Cote d’Ivoire, was sentenced to 20 years in prison after a burglary in her apartment she reported to the local police was turned against her.
She has been in prison since 2019 after she refused to grant the request of a divisional police officer to drop the case.
A journalist, David Hundeyin, who shared the lady’s story on Twitter, explained that the victim’s flat was burgled and items worth over N300,000 stolen, adding that she reported the matter to the police and later travelled to Nigeria to see her sick mother.
However, upon her return to Cote d’Ivoire, she was notified that the thief had been caught.
Hundeyin tweeted, “The thief turned out to be a 14-year-old boy who lived nearby. His embarrassed dad apologised and admitted that his son was a habitual thief. The items had already been sold.
“Itunu (Babalola) reported this to the police, who told her to return on Tuesday, November 5, 2019. The appointment was held on Wednesday, November 6. There, she says the DPO informed her that the suspect was his nephew. He then offered her a settlement worth roughly N100,000 to drop the case.
“She refused the settlement, citing the disparity between the value of the stolen items and what was offered. Next, she says the visibly enraged DPO tried everything to frustrate her into dropping the case, including making her travel to Abidjan for a police appointment.
“In Abidjan, she hired a lawyer to attend the appointment with her, all to no avail as the police refused to cooperate.
“Frustrated, she returned home to Bondoukou. Around 5pm the following day, a convoy of police vehicles showed up outside her house and publicly arrested her.
“On getting to the station, she was charged with theft — the theft of her items in her apartment. She spent the next four days in police custody, after which she was taken out of the cell and offered freedom if she agreed to sign papers dropping her case.
“For whatever reason, despite the clear bad faith displayed by the Ivorian police, Itunu says she rejected the offer and chose to go to court instead. She says she then overheard an officer saying, ‘Elle est une Nigériane? Elle mourra ici!’ (She’s a Nigerian? She will die here).
“The decision to go to court turned out to be a monumental error of judgment compounded by her naivety about the Ivorian justice system. The (French-speaking) court did not allow her adequate legal representation or give her a chance to state her case correctly.
“She was speedily convicted and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. Further complicating this was her decision to identify herself to the court as ‘Becky Paul’. She says she did this to avoid getting her family name mixed up in bad news and potentially upsetting her aged mom.
“As a result, for the past one year and four months since her conviction, Itunu, alias Becky Paul, has become, to all intents and purposes, a forgotten inmate at the notorious Maison d’arrêt et de Correction Bondoukou (Bondoukou Remand and Correctional Facility).
“When her Nigerian friends in Cote d’Ivoire approached the Nigerian Embassy in Abidjan to provide consular assistance for her case, officials reportedly asked for N400,000 to get her a passport before anything can be done.”
Hundeyin, who noted that Babalola had spent her savings in trying to clear her name, said she had attempted suicide twice.
Nigerians on social media however started a campaign, #JusticeForItunu, calling on the Nigerian government to ensure her release from prison.
Gabriel Odu, Head of Media, Public Relations and Protocol Unit of NIDCOM, in a statement said investigation by the government revealed that the former prosecutor in collaboration with the police twisted the case and accused Itunu of human trafficking, hence her conviction for 20 years.
The statement read, following painstaking investigations by the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission and the Nigeria Mission in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, it is now confirmed that Itunu Babalola, a Nigerian living in Abidjan was wrongfully charged and incarcerated for a crime she did not commit.
“According to the Chairman/CEO Nigerians in Diaspora Commission Hon Abike Dabiri-Erewa the Charge D’Affaires of the Nigerian Mission in Côte D’Ivoire, Mr Mohammed Gana, sent officials of the mission to Bondoukou, a city eight hours outside Abidjan when the case was brought to his attention.
“Plans are underway to engage the services of a legal Luminary to prove the innocence of Itunu Babalola at the Court of Appeal after the accused had spent two years out of a ten year jail term for an offense she did not commit.
“Reports indicate that the new prosecutor assigned to the case has given assurances of a fair and unbiased review and retrial of the case to secure the release of Itunu Babalola.
“Reports also allegedly indicate that the former prosecutor in collaboration with the police twisted the case and accused Itunu Babalola of human trafficking hence her conviction for 20 years although the sentence was reduced to 10 years from which she has served 2 years so far.
“Itunu Babalola, whose family is from Oyo State, Nigeria has been living in Bondoukou, Cote d’Ivoire for a long time but got entangled in a legal battle.when she reported the burglary of her house to the police.
“On efforts made to secure her bail, the prosecutor said it is only the court that can grant her bail as she has already been convicted. We will continue to monitor the case as it unfolds.”