February 04, 2008

NIgerian Trovan trials - the spin and the spin

Pfizer employees in court over 1996 drug trial

8 hours ago

KANO, Nigeria (AFP) — Three employees of US drug giant Pfizer appeared in court Monday facing criminal charges filed by the Kano state government over an allegedly illegal 1996 meningitis drug trial.

The judge adjourned the case until March 4 when Pfizer's challenge to the court's legal jurisdiction will be heard.

Pfizer employees Bashir Bello, Segun Dogunro and Lere Baale stood in the witness box for the first time since civil and criminal proceedings were launched against the drug firm and eight of its staff eight months ago.

The accused face 65-charge counts of criminal conspiracy, causing grievous harm and culpable homicide.

The Kano state government filed civil and criminal suits demanding 2.75 billion dollars (two billion euros) in compensation from Pfizer and prosecution of its staff involved in testing Trovan during a triple epidemic of measles, cholera and meningitis in which over 12,000 people died.

The drug test allegedly led to 11 deaths and deformities in 189 other cases such as blindness, deafness, brain damage and paralysis.

Pfizer denies any wrongdoing and insists that the trial was conducted with the approval of the Nigerian government and conformed to ethical procedures.

The presiding judge Shehu Atiku issued a summons Monday for the managing director of Neimeth Pharmaceuticals, an off-shoot of Pfizer to appear before it to answer the same charges.

Sam Ohabunwa was managing director of Pfizer Nigeria when the illegal trial was alleged to have taken place.

Three US-based Pfizer staff also accused of involvement have not made an appearance but the prosecution said it had submitted extradition requests to the Nigerian justice minister.

Nigeria: Trovan Trials - Let's Keep the Stream of Justice Pure

Nzeshi Ikedi

"Pfizer used me as a guinea pig to test an unapproved drug. I am left deaf and dumb/brain damage", "I am reduced to nothing by Pfizer" These were some of the inscriptions contained on placards carried by some very able-bodied Kano State indigenes who claimed to be the victims of the Pfizer clinical investigations of its new drug Trovan in 1996.

In December, these demonstrators, about 70 of them, besieged the Kano State High court in Audu Bako Secretariat Kano, presided over by Chief Justice of the state, Hon Ciroma Yusuf. They claimed to be showing their solidarity with the government of Kano State in its fight against Pfizer.

The State Attorney General instituted criminal and civil proceedings against Pfizer Incorporated in May 2007. Pfizer Nigeria and others are accused on serious charges for neglecting their individual and collective responsibilities in the clinical investigation. Supposedly this resulted in 11 unnecessary deaths, though Pfizer vigorously denies the charge.

There was something rather sad, however, in seeing protesters storming a court trial in the name of victims. It was sad because in no place in the statements against the accused was the welfare of these victims paramount. Moreover, should the state win in this civil suit, nothing in the damages (spoils or booty) asked for will go to this group of people who claim victimhood.

Nevertheless, the protestors disrupted a court session, risking being charged with contempt of court in their act to intimidate the court of the Hon Chief Justice. They seemed unaware that they were all on their own and the petitioners were not acting on their behalf. They seemed not to realize they would be left high and dry, even in the event the case is decided against Pfizer with billions of dollars awarded in damages.

I do not want to comment more on the merits of the issues being canvassed as they are pending in court. I certainly do not want to be placed in contempt of court myself by making rash assumptions about the facts of the case. However, I do want to comment as an observer of the court proceedings in Kano State on what I consider to be a dangerous trend that has come to characterize these trials in the state.

The Trovan issue is subject in six different suits in three locations in the country. The then Attorney General of the Federation, Bayo Ojo had earlier, five days before the end of his tenure in office, filed a criminal and a civil case, in Federal High courts in Abuja, against the same defendants. The interesting part of this issue is that all the cases filed by the law officers of these different governments are nothing but mirror images of one another in terms of grounds, defendants, counsels, claims etc.

The most authoritative document used by the petitioners of these suits is the never adopted or approved unpublished report of the Nasidi Commission of Inquiry instituted by the federal government to look into the conduct of the clinical investigation. This document is currently being challenged by Pfizer in a suit instituted at the Federal High court Abuja. The company wants the court to quash the report.

The sixth case is that brought up in the Ikeja High court by Pfizer, challenging the service of summonses against its staff in Lagos.

My worry is why is it that only in Kano trials do demonstrators invade court sittings? What does this practice tell of us? Does it reveal an impatient and violent people, who would not want or trust justice to run its normal fair course? Are the protests part of a pattern that left many people dead in the wake of local government elections in the state?

Granted, the Trovan demonstration was mostly peaceful until the presiding judged ordered them out of the court premises.

Let us examine the implications of these demonstrations. The first implication is that they are contemptuous. However, while court invasions easily achieve their aims of putting judges and other judicial officers under undue pressure, it is debatable if they play any influence in determining the outcome of trials. But, whether or not the protests are effective, they assault the very foundation of the rule of law and fair hearing.

I must admit that everyone has a right to express his or her feelings, but this must be done by lawful means. Going to court is an expression of this right. The rules of court must be respected at all times. Of all the places where law and other must be maintained, it is in the law courts where it matters most. The course of justice must not be deflected or interfered with. Those who strike at impartial justice strike at the very foundations of our society.

Relevant Links

Here, I must congratulate the Chief Justice of Kano State and the Presiding judge of the court for his wisdom in ordering the protesters out of the court premises. To underscore the importance of his order, the learned judge stood down further proceedings of the day until it was reported to him that his orders had been carried out to the letter.

Another implication is that such demonstrations further weakens the administration of justice as witnesses, counsels, pressmen, litigants and defendants may find it too volatile to attend court sessions. In the process, such events delay the administration of justice. With such circumstances, how do we assure expatriates mentioned in the Pfizer cases to be confident enough of their safety if they attend the court proceedings?

Ikedi wrote from Lagos

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