One of Nigeria's most influential states has taken an important step towards abolition of the death penalty by pardoning and releasing three condemned prisoners. A further 37 death row inmates in Lagos state had their sentences commuted, including 29 who will now face life imprisonment.
"This is a step forward for human rights in Lagos," said Aster van Kregten, Amnesty International's Nigeria researcher.
"The state governor has removed the spectre of death hanging over his fellow citizens. Amnesty International welcomes this major step forward in the protection of human rights and commends the governor for showing human rights leadership on this issue. We encourage others to follow his example.
"We also hope the leaders of Lagos State will follow this bold move by declaring a moratorium on executions and ultimately abolishing the death penalty for all crimes. This is Lagos State's opportunity to lead Nigeria away from the death penalty via their example."
Lagos State Governor Babatunde Fashola said he had granted the amnesty on "humanitarian grounds". He added that he wanted to give the prisoners "hope of changing their behaviours and [being] rehabilitated into society".
While no death row prisoner from Lagos state has been executed for over ten years, death sentences continue to be imposed. The state will review its Criminal Code later this year.
In recent years, capital punishment has frequently been the subject of political debate in Nigeria. More than 2,600 death sentences were carried out under military governments between 1970 and 1999, most of which were passed by Robbery and Firearms Tribunals. After the military regime ended and power was handed over to a civilian government in May 1999, the number of executions of death row prisoners dropped.
Two expert groups set up by former president Obasanjo – the National Study Group on Death Penalty (2004) and the Presidential Commission on Reform of the Administration of Justice (2007) – recommended a moratorium on executions.
In 2008, at least 40 people were sentenced to death in Nigeria and approximately 735 people were on death row, including 11 women. Hundreds of those did not have a fair trial.
Currently, 139 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice. Africa is largely free of executions, with only two of the 53 African Union member states known to have carried out executions in 2008.