Africa, Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-NIGERIA: Grim, Overflowing Death Rows

Toye Olori

LAGOS, Mar 19 2007 (IPS) - Some 600 people are now crammed into Nigeria’s disease-infested death rows and the number is certain to rise with a justice system that critics say has been resisting reform since the end of military rule in 1999.

The situation was highlighted dramatically this month when the U.N.’s special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, ended a week-long visit here on Mar. 10. He charged there were only a “few tangible results” from efforts to reform the justice system, and one death row inmate had been waiting there for more than 20 years.

Novak levelled grave charges against the Nigerian police for breaking the law with impunity and extracting confessions and information by force. Abuse of suspects was “systemic” and “routine”, he said at a press conference ending his visit.

“Detainees are beaten up. They are suspended from the ceilings for prolonged periods and beaten in that position as a way for the police to extract confessions or other information.” The police also shot at their legs.

He also said the justice system discriminated against the poor, who could not pay for lawyers. Femi Falana, a lawyer and human rights activist from the Campaign for Democracy suggested to IPS that the situation could be even worse than Novak described. The visit was an official one and he believed Novak was given a “guided tour”.

Activists campaigning for death row inmates have long claimed that some may have been wrongly sentenced because of improper investigations by the police, while those who had the money could buy their way to freedom. Nowak’s charges are likely to be taken up by activists in their efforts to remove the lingering threat to execution which hangs over what must now be one of the largest death row populations in the world.

The last known executions in Nigeria were in November 1995 when Ken Saro Wiwa and eight other Ogoni environmental activists were hanged during the era of General Sani Abacha who ruled from 1993 to 1998. But there could have been secret executions since the return to civilian rule.

A government-appointed committee on reform of the country’s justice and prison system produced its first report in 2005. It recommended the release of all those who had been on death row for more than 10 years. It also called for the swift execution of all others who had exhausted their appeals, according to a copy of the report received by the Campaign for Democracy. This was suggested as a way of reducing overcrowding in the country’s prisons.

The report is said to have criticised all levels of officials involved in Nigeria’s capital punishment system. Appeals were sometimes long delayed. Officials failed to prepare execution orders for signatures. State governors ignored them when they arrived or failed to exercise their pardoning rights.

The government did not accept the committee’s recommendations, sending it back to do a more thorough job. Its reported recommendation that death row numbers should be reduced by executions has been strongly criticised by the Campaign for Democracy.

John Uziegbe, a legal officer with the Legal Resource Consortium in the commercial hub of Lagos, believes that the way the system now operates shows that Nigerian governors are collectively observing a moratorium on the death penalty. “Most state governors are not ready to sign death warrants, not because of lack of political will but more an unwillingness to kill,” he told IPS.

“They do not want to associate themselves with taking lives.”

He added that Nigerian politicians knew from experience that capital punishment was no deterrent to crime. “Even under the military when public executions of armed robbers were carried out in the locality of the criminal, crimes were being committed in the vicinity at the same time,” he said.

Other activists and many lawyers agree that capital punishment is unrelated to crime levels. “We have a growing crime rate because our government has not been able to provide for its citizens. So many unemployed youths are pushed into crime to survive,” Lawrence Quakar, a lawyer and member of the Human Rights Law Service, said.

“If the government had performed its duties by providing the people with basic necessities of life, we would not have cause to start arguing whether the death penalty should be expunged from the constitution,” he added, saying that a return to state executions would make criminals even more violent. Unofficially, the unemployment rate is 60 percent.

Besides campaigning for a formal death penalty ban, rights activists have been pressing for an improvement in the conditions for Nigeria’s estimated 40,000 prison population. Inmates are said to sleep on bare boards in overcrowded cells. Disease, especially tuberculosis, was rife with many dying because of inadequate medical treatment, Uziegbe said.

“Conditions in prisons are very terrible. From what I have seen there, the people awaiting trial suffer more than those already convicted. They are crammed into cells and not taken care of since there’s no money for them,” he said.

The U.N.’s Nowak also raised the issue of medical attention in prisons at his press conference in Lagos. He said the victims of police torture were left without medical treatment for the injuries inflicted.

Nowak’s eventual report on Nigeria’s justice and prison system may well increase the number of Nigerians in favour of a constitutional ban on the death penalty – although a spate of gun crime and armed robberies, especially in Lagos, is also certain to keep the numbers in favour of capital punishment high. There are even some who would like to extend the number of capital offences.

“Capital punishment is the best antidote to the high level of corruption in Nigeria,” said Bilikisu Amoda, a school teacher from Lagos. “If President Obasanjo’s anti-corruption crusade is to work, those convicted of corruption should be executed as in China. Many Nigerians have died though the actions and inaction of corrupt officials.”

But the enormous interest in Novak’s statement and the outpouring of public sympathy over the hanging in Singapore of a 19-year-old Nigerian found guilty of drug smuggling last January, suggest the numbers opposing capital punishment are rising. Civil society groups not only condemned Singapore’s government over the hanging, but also their own for being slow to react and failing to prevent the execution.

The press compared the case to that of the well-known Nigerian actress, Hassanat Taiwo, who was arrested in Lagos for trying to smuggle cocaine out of the country to England. She admitted the offence and was able to pay an eight thousand dollar fine and go free in January.

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