A non-governmental organisation, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), has called for urgent reform of the plea bargaining procedure in the nation's justice system.

SERAP made the call on Sunday in a statement, while reacting to the recent Police Pensions scam judgment delivered by Justice Mohammed Talba of the Abuja High Court.

A copy of the statement signed by its Executive Director, Mr Adetokunbo Mumuni, was made available to the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) in Lagos.

The judge had convicted an assistant director in the Police Pensions Office, Yakubu Yusuf, involved in the N27.2 billion pensions scam after the accused had pleaded guilty to the offence.

Talba had sentenced Yusuf to two years imprisonment on each of the three counts charge preferred against him, with an option of N250,000 fine for each of the charges.

SERAP, however, argued that the lenient sentence was in line with the plea bargain agreement he entered with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).

The group said: “This judgment illustrates the systemic problem associated with the government’s anti-corruption fight.

“There is now an urgent need for a root-and-branch reform of the plea bargaining procedure and the demonstration of a strong political will to fight corruption fairly if we are to permanently remove this kind of judgment from our legal lexicon.

“An important element of justice is missing when the accused and the government believe a plea bargain is fair, while judges lack the necessary legal tool and mandatory guidelines upon which to decide and render true justice.”

It said judges should live up to citizens' expectation that the courts would apply and interpret the law reasonably, once there was a sound legal framework.

“At the moment, plea bargaining only tends to serve the interest of the corrupt public officials who continue to profit from their crimes and ill-gotten wealth”, the group said.

SERAP said in its current unregulated format, plea bargaining procedure was promoting unjustifiable sentencing disparities, favouring the rich over the poor, encouraging corruption and was self-defeating and counter-productive.

The group therefore urged the Minister of Justice, Mr Muhammed Adoke, to urgently work with the National Assembly towards developing a comprehensive legal framework to regulate the use of plea bargaining.

It said the reform would increase judicial involvement in the procedure, render justice to victims of corruption and deter corrupt public officials. (NAN)