General News of Thursday, 16 January 2003
The deputy Director of Prisons, Benson T. Baba today apologized on his own behalf and on behalf of the Prisons Service for excesses committed by prisons officers in the bid to curb rioting by disgruntled inmates of the Nsawam Prisons on January 4, 1992. And as a reconciliatory gesture, he embraced one of his victims, Rexford Obeng to the admiration of members of the Reconciliation Commission and the general public.
Amidst thunderous applause, smiles and laughter by both members of the Commission and of the public present, Mr Baba and Ohemeng, a former military officer shared a word as they smiled to each other.
Mr Ohemeng who appeared before the commission on Wednesday, accused Mr Baba of ordering the torture and maltreatment of some prisoners at the Ussher Fort and Nsawam Prisons. He also accused Mr Baba of ordering officers to beat him up after he had been chained. Mr Baba was also accused of refusing the transfer of a sick inmate to a better equipped health facility for treatment, resulting in his death.
But in his statement to the Commission, Mr Baba denied allegations of brutality, death threat and embezzlement made against him. He, however, submitted that he and other prisons officers at the time had several confrontations with Mr Ohemeng, because he had the attitude of interfering in issues, which did not concern him and in the process made the enforcement of discipline, rules and regulations in the prisons very difficult.
Mr Baba said on January 4, 1992, he was with prisons canteen staff who were preparing for the end of year party, when he heard sounds of whistles from the cells. He therefore ordered an officer to find out what was happening.
"When the whistling intensified, I followed up myself and I found out that some disgruntled prisoners were on the rampage and had vandalized my office, the main office and the administration block for reasons not clear to me at the time."
He said at the time he was in civilian clothes and had no weapon so he advised the inmates who were wielding cutlasses, clubs and other weapons to hand over their weapons and return to their cells, but they refused.
Mr Baba said the prisoners charged towards the gate and when the officers present realized that the prisoners were serious, one prison officer went in for a weapon and was ready to shoot into the rioting prisoners. Mr Baba said he stopped the prison officer and in the process developed a health problem, which he continues to live with at his own expense.
He said he gave a 15-minute ultimatum to all inmates to return to their cells, which they did. Mr Baba said on his way to the cells to ensure that every prisoner was in, he saw a ladder placed at the back of the window of Block One and some prisoners climbing down. He said when he confronted them they threatened to kill him.
He said information got to them later that some prisoners had held a meeting in the Catholic chapel in the yard and planned to demonstrate against the government of the day, the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC), apparently because they were not happy for being denied amnesty.
He said the prisoners were led by one George Acheampong, who had been jailed for 53 years in hard labour, Clement Tamakloe, Oliver Quist, Charles Antwi and one Mingle, all of whom had been sentenced to 10 years in hard labour. He said information reached him that other prisoners who did not take part had fore knowledge of the demonstration.
Mr Baba said due to the volatile nature of the situation, he wrote a report to Accra and recommended that an emergency force be brought in to help curb the situation. "The emergency force arrived just on time under the command of the Director of Operations of the Prisons Service and they used several means including force to normalize the situation. The use of force in such situations was legitimate under the law and the prisons regulations," he said.
Mr Baba said the force applied by the emergency team was to weaken the rioters and not kill them and it was unfortunate that in the process some innocent prisoners such as Ohemeng suffered brutality. "I am sorry for the unfortunate incident that fateful night, but I was only carrying out my official duty," he said. "I am not a bad person as people think."
Mr Baba also denied request for transfer to the Nsawam Prisons to silence the prisoners there. He said at the time, the Nsawam Prison and the Usher Fort Prison had so many political prisoners and records of escape, and since no prisons officer wanted to serve in those prisons, he accepted to do so as a matter of duty.