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Detention case to High Court

Thursday, November 22, 2007
Denver Isaacs
The Namibian

AN urgent application was lodged in the High Court in Windhoek yesterday, arguing for the release from prison of a 67-year-old Jamaican man who has spent the last 19 months in jail over money he allegedly owes the Windhoek Country Club and Casino.

The Legal Assistance Centre (LAC) this week took up the case of Norman Escoffery, who they argue has been unlawfully detained for almost two years now, and remains in custody without a definite release date in sight.

Escoffery has never been charged with a crime.

He has been kept in the juvenile section of the Windhoek Central Prison since May 2 last year, when he was arrested over an alleged N$460 000 bill he had run up with the Country Club during almost a year's stay there.

According to a letter sent to the Country Club's board chairperson Sven Thieme by general manager Anthony Boucher in February that year, all attempts to collect the money from Escoffery had proved futile.

The hotel, Boucher said, initiated legal action because it feared that the Jamaican might try to flee the country without settling his bill.

As this was a civil matter and Escoffery was a foreign national, the only way the Namibian courts could gain jurisdiction over him was to either arrest him or attach whatever property he had in Namibia until the case had been resolved.

Escoffery had no property in Namibia, and was therefore arrested.

It has however emerged that the Country Club was granted a default judgement in the case on June 6 2006, something Escoffery says he was unaware of until his consultation with the LAC this week.

He acknowledges that the assistant deputy sheriff came to see him in prison on July 18 2006 and demanded that he pay the amount owed.

"I did not have that sort of money with me at the Windhoek Central Prison, nor did I have any property in the prison apart from my clothing.

He then told me that he has instructions to inform me that I will remain in custody until I have paid the amount and the costs of the lawyers of the (Country Club)," Escoffery states in his application.

"I am now in custody without any definite date in sight for my release.

I have not been charged or convicted with any offence and I have not appeared in any court, and I am treated far worse than a convicted criminal, who will at least know when he or she will be released," Escoffery says.

He argues that the judgement the Country Club has obtained against him can be executed more effectively from his home in the United States, where he is a permanent resident and where he owns assets.

The LAC, according to its Director Norman Tjombe, will argue that it is unconstitutional for people to be arrested or detained to force them to pay off a debt, or as punishment for having accumulated debt.

"What is strange is that even after the civil case was concluded, Mr Norman Escoffery was continued to be detained, and for an extremely inordinate period, without any end in sight.

In a previous case of the Legal Assistance Centre, we were successful in arguing that it is unconstitutional to arrest or detain a person for a civil debt," Tjombe told The Namibian on Monday.

In an interview that Escoffery had with the National Society for Human Rights in August this year, he said he suffered from heart disease, and that prison authorities had denied him a special diet prescribed by medical personnel at the Katutura State Hospital.

These statements are repeated in his application to the court, where he adds that his health has been quickly deteriorating due to the conditions in prison.

He did not bring an application for his release to court earlier, he states, because he was unaware of his rights under the Namibian law.

He had tried legal help before, he said, but had simply been advised to settle the amount he owed.

Escoffery also said that, because of his imprisonment, his entry visa had expired and his presence in Namibia currently was illegal.

The Country Club's lawyer was not present at court yesterday, which prompted Acting Judge Theo Frank to postpone the hearing of Escoffery's case until Tuesday.

When contacted this week, Country Club GM Boucher declined to comment before the end of the week.

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