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Q&A: "Inmates Who Are on Death Row Are Without Legal Representation"

Interview with Olawale Fapohunda

LAGOS, Oct 12 2007 (IPS) - Olawale Fapohunda is a leading human rights lawyer in Nigeria and managing partner of the Legal Resource Consortium, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in the economic capital of Lagos that provides free legal aid to prison inmates.

Anti-death penalty campaigner Olawale Fapohunda. Credit: Olawale Fapohunda

Anti-death penalty campaigner Olawale Fapohunda. Credit: Olawale Fapohunda

He was secretary of the Presidential Commission on the Reform of the Administration of Justice which early this year recommended the release of many death row prisoners. He is also a member of the International Advisory Board of Penal Reform International. In an interview with IPS writer Toye Olori, he calls for a formal moratorium on executions and a speedy end to capital punishment in Nigeria.

IPS: Rwanda and Gabon recently abolished capital punishment. What lessons can they offer Nigeria?

OLAWALE FAPOHUNDA (OF): Yes, these two countries have abolished the death penalty, and also Senegal, three years ago. Nigeria will also have to act decisively on this issue of capital punishment. It has been a subject of public discussion here since 2004. But now it is perhaps time for the government to take a lead and show the way forward.

IPS: But is Nigeria really ripe for abolition, considering its very high crime rate?

OF: The debate on the death penalty in Nigeria is always an emotional one. Sometimes it is rarely backed up by facts or proper reasoning. You mentioned the high crime rate, yet that assertion does not match the statistics. For example, our population is about 140 million. But the total population of our prisons is 40,000, out of which 25,000 are actually remand inmates. So either this crime rate is exaggerated or the police are not catching the criminals. Whatever it is, the statistics do illustrate a fundamental flaw in our criminal justice system.

We do actually have an unofficial moratorium on executions. The simple reason for this is that the state governors who are required to sign death warrants have shown a reluctance to do so. This is largely because of the unreliability of the whole process from arrest to conviction.

Standing in the way of abolition, besides the perceptions on crime, is religion. Many Nigerians have a hard-line attitude towards capital punishment and this is influenced by their religious beliefs.

In my view Nigeria should abolish the death penalty, but I doubt if there is the political will to do so.

IPS: Why are the courts still continuing to sentence people to death when there is what you call an "unofficial moratorium"?

OF: The death penalty is still retained in the laws of Nigeria. The constitutionality of the death penalty has been affirmed by our Supreme Court. Therefore courts are still able to hand down death sentences. This will continue to be the case until there is law reform on this issue and the death penalty is removed from our legal code.

IPS: What are rights activists doing to pressure the government to abolish capital punishment?

OF: The Nigerian NGOs have been consistent in lobbying on this issue. Our efforts are ongoing. But it would be a mistake to assume that there is consensus among all Nigerian NGOs on the death penalty. This is not so.

There is, however, a coalition of NGOs for the abolition of the death penalty. This is seeking to build a consensus among governmental and non-governmental institutions on this issue. There is also an effort to get parliament to discuss the death penalty.

As NGOs, we need to do more in the area of public education. We also need to back our advocacy with concrete facts and figures.

IPS: What has become of the recommendations of the Presidential Commission on the Reform of the Administration of Justice on which you served as secretary?

OF: We presented three reports to the presidency, including a final one which studied the prisons nationwide. A committee was then constituted to review these reports and submit a white paper to the presidency.

The ministers of justice and of the interior have recently begun moves to adopt the key recommendations from the reports, particularly those which related to the prisons and conditions of prison inmates.

IPS: Your commission was particularly concerned about inmates on death row. You recommended certain categories of these should be released. Has this happened?

OF: Yes, we were concerned about the deplorable conditions on death row. We found that the average period spent on death row is between 10 to 15 years. We also noted that many death row inmates have been diagnosed as having various physical and mental ailments.

We were persuaded by the report of the National Study Group on the Death Penalty, set up by the federal government in 2004. This statement encapsulated the findings of that report: "A system that would take a life must first give justice."

In addition to identifying certain categories of inmates on death row for immediate release, we also recommended an official moratorium on executions until the Nigerian criminal justice system can ensure fundamental fairness and due process in capital cases.

The call for an official moratorium on all executions is borne out by the conviction that the federal government can no longer ignore the systemic problems that have long existed in our criminal justice system. These have been exacerbated by the limited funding of criminal justice agencies, inadequate training of personnel and an inadequate legal aid scheme.

We also found that one of the most intractable problems in the administration of the death penalty in Nigeria is the severe lack of competent and adequately-compensated legal counsel for defendants and death row inmates seeking appeals.

The limited funding of the legal aid scheme has seriously undermined the support system for lawyers taking on these complex and demanding cases.

It is particularly noteworthy and of concern that the Legal Aid Council presently does not provide legal assistance and advice for people facing capital punishment. The direct consequence of this is that inmates who are on death row in Nigeria&#39s prisons – almost all exclusively poor – are without legal representation.

The federal government has yet to implement our recommendations, including our call for an official moratorium on executions and the release of certain categories of inmates on death row.

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