Obed Sopuruchi was arrested during a police raid in Morogbo, Lagos, in 2004 at the age of 16. He only left his father’s roof for the first time in his life to spend his holidays in Lagos with an uncle after his senior secondary two examinations.
The police continued to extort money from the family to grant him bail and when the family could not afford to pay again, he was charged with armed robbery and was given a case mate, Sunday Edet, a 17 year-old whom he had never met in his life.
Both of them were allegedly shot in prison by the police, both were convicted and sentenced to death solely on confessional statements they were shown for the first time in court.
Prosper Ilada, a former driver in Benin, was pushed to steal his salary from his boss after he hadn’t been paid for three months. After repeated pleas for his salary, Mr Ilada, while returning from the bank with his boss after making cash withdrawal, distracted him for a while and took out the exact amount being owed him from the lump sum. He later went to his boss’s house to explain why he had to resort to such measures but was arrested and charged with armed robbery. He was subsequently sentenced to death and has been in prison for seven years.
These cases and other similar but largely unreported ones have heightened the call for the abolition of death penalty in Nigeria by citizens and human rights groups. Groups such as Amnesty International and Legal Defence and Assisted Project (LEDAP) have called for the abolition of the death sentence, and an immediate moratorium to be declared on all executions, changing all death sentences without delay to terms of imprisonment.
Chino Obiagwu, national coordinator, LEDAP, noted at a workshop on death penalty for journalists, recently, that most of the people on death row today in Nigeria are the poor who cannot afford defence lawyers or who cannot bribe the police.
“The death sentence has been unfairly applied to the poor, uneducated people,” said Mr Obiagwu. “Out of the 924 people on death row today, more than half of them cannot afford lawyers to take their appeal,” Mr Obiagwu added.
A ‘harsh’ punishment
For Mr Obiagwu, mandatory death sentence is “very harsh” and does not give consideration for crimes committed in self-defence. He argued that it does not serve the purpose it was meant to serve.
“It doesn’t discourage criminals from committing crime. It creates a model of bloodshed in Nigeria,” he said. While citing the scenario of executing a man who is the bread winner of his family, he said “killing a criminal takes one life away, but also completely ruins several lives.” A death sentence, Mr Obiagwu said, is not the only option. “They should increase the possibility of stopping and arresting criminals. Severity of punishment does not deter potential criminals. What deters them is the possibility of apprehension.” Nigeria currently has 924 prisoners on death row for various types and degrees of crime. It is among the 58 countries still practicing the death penalty. US, China, Japan and many Asian, African and Middle Eastern countries still retain the death penalty for certain crimes and impose it with varying frequency. Venezuela and Portugal were the first nations to abolish the death penalty altogether. In 2009, Burundi and Togo joined the number of countries that have abolished the death penalty to make a total of 139, more than two thirds of the nations of the world.
However, in 18 African countries, 19 American countries, 14 Asian countries, one European country and 16 Middle Eastern countries, the death penalty still thrives. Although Nigeria has not carried out an execution since 2006, hundreds of prisoners still remain on death row.
The fear, tension, and emotional trauma they face was further heightened in February 2010 when the 36 state governors announced after a joint meeting that they would start signing execution warrants in order to decongest prisons nationwide. Subsequently, the prisoners on death row across the country filed a suit at the Federal High Court, Lagos against all 36 state governors and the Comptroller General of Prisons asking for an order to stop their planned execution.
Arguing for and against Statistics from a recent poll survey by LEDAP in respect of the death penalty showed that 41.6 percent of the respondents supported the death penalty, 51 percent did not support the death penalty and 7.4 percent were indifferent.
Generally, proponents of the death penalty argue that it permanently removes the worst criminals from the society and saves the government money from feeding and keeping the prisoner. Also, they believe a criminal should be made to suffer in proportion to the offence and that it deters others from committing similar crimes.
Conversely, arguments against the death penalty abound among several interest groups. The most important one is the certainty that genuinely innocent people could be executed and that there is no possible way of compensating them for this miscarriage of justice. A second reason is the concern that the state can administer the death penalty unjustly.
Most countries have a very poor record on this. Singapore hanged two girls for drug trafficking in 1995 who were only 18 at the time of their offences and China shot an 18 year-old girl for the same offence in 1998.
However, with respect to Nigeria, most of the arguments against the death penalty are hinged on the dysfunctional criminal justice system which convicts a large number of innocent people for crimes they didn’t commit.
Aster van Kregten, Amnesty International’s Nigeria researcher 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.”
Many prisoners awaiting trial and on death row told Amnesty International and LEDAP that the police picked them up and asked for money to release them. Those who couldn’t pay were treated as suspected armed robbers.
Other death row prisoners said they were arrested when they went to the police station to report a crime they had witnessed. Almost 80 percent of inmates in Nigerian prisons say they have been beaten, threatened with weapons or tortured in police cells.
“Under Nigerian law, if a suspect confesses under pressure, threat or torture, it cannot be used as evidence in court,” said Mr Obiagwu. “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,” he said.
This article was first published in NEXT Newspaper