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Poverty and the death penalty in Nigeria

A woman in Katsina Central Prison who is facing the death penalty for having an abortion, Nigeria, March 2003

A woman in Katsina Central Prison who is facing the death penalty for having an abortion, Nigeria, March 2003

© Amnesty International


21 October 2008

Hundreds of people on death row in Nigeria did not have a fair trial and may therefore be innocent, according to a new Amnesty International report.

Nigeria: Waiting for the Hangman, says that those sentenced to death are poor and that more than half of the convictions are based on a confession – in many cases, extracted under torture.

Written in conjunction with Nigerian legal organization, the Legal Defence and Assistance Project (LEDAP), the report also says that Nigeria's criminal justice system is "riddled with corruption, negligence and a nearly criminal lack of resources".

As of February 2008, 725 men and 11 women were on death row in Nigeria. At least 40 of them were under 18. About 53 percent were convicted of murder. Most of the rest were convicted of armed robbery and robbery.

Forty seven percent of death row inmates are waiting for their appeal to be concluded. A quarter of prisoners' appeals have lasted 5 years. Six percent of prisoners with appeals outstanding have waited more than 20 years. One prisoner has spent 24 years on death row.

"It is truly horrifying to think of how many innocent people may have been executed and may still be executed," said Aster van Kregten, Amnesty International's Nigeria researcher, speaking from Abuja. "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."

Life on death row is extremely harsh. Prisoners whose appeals are over are held in cells where they can see executions. After a prisoner has been hanged, other death row prisoners are forced to clean the gallows.

Almost 80 percent of inmates in Nigerian prisons say they have been beaten, threatened with weapons or tortured in police cells. Confessions are often extracted under torture.

"The police are over-stretched and under-resourced," said Aster van Kregten. "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."

"Under Nigerian law, if a suspect confesses under pressure, threat or torture, it cannot be used as evidence in court," said Chino Obiagwu, LEDAP's National Coordinator. "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 poor are at the greatest risk in Nigeria's criminal justice system. Chino Obiagwu says that questions of guilt and innocence are almost irrelevant. "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."

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 told Amnesty International that they were arrested when they went to a police station to report a crime they had witnessed. Police demanded money for their release. Sometime police asked for money for fuel, without which they could not visit witnesses or check alibis.

Amnesty International and LEDAP are calling on the Federal Government of Nigeria to abolish the death penalty. The organizations say that pending abolition the government should declare an immediate moratorium on all executions as provided by UN General Assembly resolution 62/149 and commute without delay all death sentences to terms of imprisonment.