Africa, Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-NIGERIA: The Threat of Death Hangs Over Thousands

Tolu Samuel

LAGOS, Mar 6 2008 (IPS) - Three months after the U.N. General Assembly called on states which practice capital punishment to adopt a moratorium on executions, several thousand Nigerians continue to live in fear of the gallows, with activists accusing the government of inertia – and even of failing to carry out its past promises to free the aged on death row.

"I do not see Nigeria towing the U.N. line," said Demian Ugwu, head of advocacy at the Civil Liberties Organisation, based in the financial capital, Lagos.

"Nigerians in general support the death penalty because of the high crime rate. This is why when an armed robber is apprehended by members of the public on the streets, he is given jungle justice," he told IPS, noting that government might well use the excuse of public opinion to justify to the international community its inaction over a formal moratorium.

There are 784 inmates held in "tiny, dark and filthy" cells on death row in Nigeria, according to Amnesty International. But there are also thousands of others at risk of being sentenced to death, it reports in &#39NIGERIA: Prisoners&#39 Rights Systematically Flouted&#39, a 52-page study issued last month.

Three out of four of these are suspected of armed robbery, a capital offence in Nigeria; the remainder are behind bars awaiting trial for murder. They include aged and mentally ill prisoners, as well as young mothers.

In May 2007, Nigeria announced that it would grant amnesty to all death row inmates over 70, and those 60 or over who had been awaiting execution for ten years or more. However, Amnesty has no confirmation that any such prisoners were released.

Human rights activists have also accused Nigeria of breaking its promise to maintain an unofficial moratorium, saying it has conducted executions in secret.

Former head of state Olusegun Obasanjo, who was succeeded by Umaru Yar&#39Adua in May last year, promised never to carry out capital punishment during his administration. He also pledged to introduce a death penalty ban. Obasanjo was in office for two terms, from 1999 to 2007.

Ugwu said there were executions last year in Kano State, northern Nigeria, and that certain death row inmates had also been executed two years ago in Enugu State, in the south-east. "Officials are reluctant to allow access to information and say they do not kill any longer; but we are aware these executions took place."

Last year, Amnesty International said it had uncovered evidence of at least seven executions in the past two years, although more may have taken place. The death warrants had been signed by Kano State Governor Malam Ibrahim Shekarau, it noted.

Olawale Fapohunda, a leading anti-death penalty activist and managing partner of the Legal Resources Consortium, a Lagos-based non-governmental organisation, said he could not confirm the allegations of execution. Although the Nigerian Supreme Court had affirmed the constitutionality of the death penalty, state governors were following an unofficial moratorium "because they believe some of the convicted may not be guilty," he told IPS.

Fapohunda said that during a visit to Kano State last year, he found certain inmates lacking access to legal representation, which suggested that people risked being sentenced to death even if innocent: "I saw two death row inmates in Kano Prison. One of them said that he had a problem with someone who wanted to take his wife. He was accused of rape and sentenced to death because he had no access to a lawyer."

The problem of legal representation for the poor has also been highlighted by Amnesty International, which reports that 80 percent of the 25,000 persons awaiting trial in Nigeria have no such representation. Nigeria&#39s Legal Aid Council, responsible for helping citizens who cannot afford lawyers, is said to be insufficiently funded, employing only 100 lawyers.

Inadequate representation is also a major factor in suspects having to wait years to be heard in court. Amnesty researchers visited 10 prisons in preparing their recent report on Nigeria and in virtually all these institutions met inmates who said they had been "awaiting trial for seven years or more".

The rights watchdog also found evidence of torture being used to extract confessions used in obtaining convictions.

Concern over the risk of innocent people being sentenced to death prompted the Presidential Commission on the Reform of the Administration of Justice to call last May for an official moratorium on executions. This was essential "until the Nigerian justice system can ensure fundamental fairness and due process in capital cases," it said.

Fapohunda, who was secretary of the commission, said that although the momentum for reform seemed to have slowed since its recommendations were published, he was still confident they would eventually be adopted.

"I think it fair to say that the government of President Yar&#39Adua is not anti-human rights. The first phase of his administration has been an absolute commitment to the rule of law and due process," he noted.

"The government says it is in the process of studying the policy reports of the last administration. We hope the president will come out soon to implement the recommendations."

But, he said it was essential for rights activists to maintain pressure for death penalty abolition to be kept on the national agenda.

Ugwu also believes that Nigeria will ultimately act on the death penalty issue: "All in all, we do not have a choice but to join the rest of the world and abolish the death penalty in the nearest future."

However, Amnesty International is more cautious about the prospects for those in Nigeria&#39s jails, including inmates on death row.

It notes that Nigeria has given the organisation full access to prisons, and often said it was ready to reform; but, the necessary changes were not made.

"The reality remains that those in prison stand little chance of their rights being respected. Those who lack money stand even less of a chance," the organisation writes in its February report.

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