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NIGERIA: A Deadly Case of Mistaken Identity

Sam Olukoya

Olaniyi Emiola was sentenced to death for a crime another man with the same name had committed.  Credit: Sam Olukoya/IPS

Olaniyi Emiola was sentenced to death for a crime another man with the same name had committed. Credit: Sam Olukoya/IPS

LAGOS, Nov 21 2011 (IPS) - The worst day of Olaniyi Emiola’s life was Mar. 17, 1998. At least it was for Olaniyi Emiola, 22, the spare motor parts trader. For Olaniyi Emiola, the armed robber, it was a lucky escape as another man with the same name had been wrongly sentenced to death for a crime he committed.

That day, as Emiola stood in the dock of the now defunct Robbery and Firearms Tribunal in Nigeria’s southwestern city of Ibadan, Oyo State, he could not believe what was happening.

“Several members of my family … were all weeping. I was weeping too. The whole thing seemed like a nightmare to me,” the now 35-year-old Emiola told IPS.

His ordeal started three years earlier when police arrested him for armed robbery, an offence that carries the death penalty in Nigeria. This was despite the fact that his co-accused had repeatedly told police they had arrested the wrong man.

“But the police … said the robber was trying to cover up for me.”

In 2004, after spending six years on death row, Emiola came face to face with the robber whose sentence he was carrying out.

The man, who had been sentenced to death for another robbery, accepted responsibility for the crime the spare motor parts trader was accused of. Emiola wrote a letter to the Oyo state attorney general and the state governor calling for a review of his case, but there was no response.

If it had not been for Pastor Hezekiah Olujobi, head of the Ibadan-based Centre for Justice, Mercy and Reconciliation, which fights for the release of innocent prisoners, Emiola would probably still be on death row, or possibly dead.

Emiola’s case highlights the state of Nigeria’s criminal justice system as human rights groups say the system cannot guarantee a fair trial in capital cases.

“Over the years, we have seen that the Nigerian justice system is not reliable,” Princewill Akpakpan, head of penal reforms at the Lagos-based Civil Liberties Organisation, a leading human rights group in Nigeria, told IPS.

He said reasons for this include the fact that police make arbitrary arrests and force people to accept responsibility for crimes they have not committed. He added that police investigation of criminal matters is often poor.

“It is only when you correct these lapses that you can guarantee a transparent and dependable justice system,” Akpakpan said.

It took three years but eventually Emiola was released in January. “You can imagine what would have happened to this man if we had not intervened,” Olujobi said.

Olujobi said Emiola’s case is a reflection of how innocent people are sentenced to death in Nigeria.

“At the Abeokuta Federal Prison (one of the prisons where Emiola served time), we have identified six other people on death row who seem to have been wrongly convicted,” he said. “In one case, a man who fought with a policeman’s wife was arrested, charged with armed robbery and sentenced to death.” Looking back at his death sentence, Emiola said it is the worst form of injustice.

“The tribunal did not dispense any form of justice at all. It was like a pre-arranged thing, they just entered a guilty judgment against me,” he said. “This is a country where the criminal goes free while the innocent person is not only found guilty but is also sentenced to death.”

Emiola could not appeal his conviction because the Robbery and Firearms Tribunals, which were set up during years of military rule, had no appeal process.

Global rights watchdog Amnesty International said more than 2,600 death sentences were carried out under military rule between 1970 and 1999, with the Robbery and Firearms Tribunals passing most of the death sentences.

Even though the tribunals have since been abolished with the return to civilian rule in 1999 and the rights of appeal restored, Amnesty International said numerous people were executed without being informed of their right of appeal. The human rights group said many of the 700 prisoners currently on death row in Nigeria were convicted by the tribunals. “There is a strong link between poverty and these convictions. Most times the relatives of the accused persons have no money to pursue their cases,” Olujobi said.

In 2004, the National Study Group on the Death Penalty, which was set up by the Nigerian government, admitted that there are flaws in the country’s justice system.

“A system that would take a life must first give justice,” the group said in a report. It recommended a suspension of the death penalty until “the criminal justice system can ensure fundamental fairness and due process in capital cases and minimise the risk that innocent people will be executed.” Nigeria has observed an unofficial moratorium on executions since 1999. But Amnesty International said executions have been carried out in the country prior to this. The human rights group said it uncovered evidence of at least seven executions between 2009 and 2010. It said it feared more might have taken place.

Human rights lawyers like Akpakpan say that until the justice system is reviewed “there will always be a chance that innocent people will end up being executed for crimes they did not commit.”

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