Africa, Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights

DEATH PENALTY-NIGERIA: 'Forced Confessions' Condemn Hundreds

Toye Olori

LAGOS, Oct 21 2008 (IPS) - Amnesty International says that hundreds of those awaiting execution on Nigeria's death row did not have fair trials and may therefore be innocent.

At an Oct. 21 press conference in Abuja, the capital, releasing its latest report on the death penalty in Nigeria, co-authored by the Nigerian rights organisation Legal Defence and Assistance Project (LEDAP), Amnesty called for an immediate moratorium on executions in the country.

The report, Nigeria: Waiting for the Hangman, exposed a catalogue of failings in Nigeria's criminal justice system, saying that it was "riddled with corruption, negligence and a nearly criminal lack of resources".

More than half of the 720 death penalty convictions were based on confessions which were often extracted under torture.

"Although prohibited in Nigeria, in practice torture by police occurs on a daily basis. Almost 80 percent of inmates in Nigerian prisons say they have been beaten, threatened with weapons or tortured in police cells,'' the report said.

"The police are over-stretched and under-resourced. Because of this, they rely heavily on confessions to 'solve' crimes – rather than on expensive investigations. Convictions based on such confessions are obviously very unsafe," Amnesty’s researcher Aster van Kregten said.

"The judicial system is riddled with flaws that can have devastating consequences. For those accused of capital crimes, the effects are obviously deadly and irreversible."

Chino Obiagwu, LEDAP's national coordinator added that although under Nigerian law confessions given under pressure, threat or torture could not be used as evidence in court, judges took no notice.

"Judges know that there is widespread torture by the police – and yet they continue to sentence suspects to death based on these confessions, leading to many possibly innocent people being sentenced to death."

The Amnesty report said death penalty trials could take more than 10 years to conclude. Some files went missing, leaving the condemned in a limbo and apparently robbing them of their rights to amnesties.

Death row conditions were harsh.

There were also a growing number of children on death row.

"Although international law prohibits the use of the death penalty against child offenders, at least 40 death row prisoners were aged between 13 and 17 at the time of their alleged offence."

"Questions of guilt and innocence are almost irrelevant in Nigeria's criminal justice system," Obiagwu said.

"It is all about if you can afford to pay to keep yourself out of the system – whether that means paying the police to adequately investigate your case, paying for a lawyer to defend you or paying to have your name put on a list of those eligible for pardon.

"Those with the fewest resources are at the greatest risk in Nigeria's criminal justice system."

A bill which would have partially abolished the death penalty in Nigeria was overwhelmingly rejected last July.

Stunned by the degree of opposition, anti-death penalty activists and sponsors are planning a massive public education campaign before a new attempt to abolish the death penalty is made in the next parliamentary session in 2009.

"We intend to carry everybody along in the enlightenment campaign," Friday Itulah, the main sponsor of the rejected bill, told IPS.

"We intend to involve local and international NGOs and the media in addition to organising seminars and workshops."

Itulah said his bill was voted down because of religious sentiment and ignorance.

"From the religious angle, adherents particularly of the Islamic faith were of the view that life is sacred and, therefore, anyone that deprives another of life does not deserve to retain their own."

Although Itulah did not mention him by name, the leading parliamentary opponent of his abolition bill was Sada Soli, an MP from Katsina State in the predominantly Muslim north of the country.

Itulah said people need to be educated to accept the modern view that punishment should be accompanied by efforts to reform the criminal "to atone or give back to the society what he or she has taken".

He implicitly agreed with the views of Amnesty and other NGOs that many on Nigeria's death row may be innocent, saying people were unaware of the possibility of judicial errors.

"There is a lot of work to be done to create awareness in the enlightenment campaign and this will involve a lot of money … this needs to be done to ensure a smooth passage of the (new) bill in the legislature. I strongly believe that someday we will achieve our goal."

One of Nigeria's leading anti-death penalty campaigners and secretary of a presidential commission on the reform of the justice system, Olawale Fapohunda, said everything must be done to prepare the country for the introduction of the abolition bill.

"The first is to show that retention of death penalty in our laws has not been a deterrent to serious crimes.

"We want to focus on the link between property crimes, poverty and the limited opportunities that exist for a large population of Nigerians to work themselves out of poverty.

"Secondly, we note the need to respond to the concerns about crime and the inability of our criminal justice system to respond to the victims of crimes.''

This issue was now addressed before the Senate by a bill on the rights of the victims.

"What is most important now is to attract local support, not only in financial terms, but getting representatives of local pressure groups to support abolition. I think we need to do a lot more on this."

Earlier this month, legislators took up the issue of Nigerians on death rows abroad. All of these are condemned for drug-related crimes and are being denied rights to full legal representation.

A Senate motion called on the government to intervene and press foreign governments to grant these inmates clemency.

In its report, Amnesty said that there were 42 Nigerians on death rows in Indonesia (20), Libya (15), Afghanistan (6) and Saudi Arabia (1).

Between October 2006 and April 2008, Saudi Arabia executed 10 Nigerians for trafficking in drugs, including one woman.

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