Saved from death row

‘I wish AI progress and success in its work. Your visit to us made us happy and shows that AI is reliable and can be trusted to fight for people’s rights.’–Jules Hohoutou Zinsou, former Benin death row prisoner

In 2014 the plight of 14 men languishing on death row in the small West African country of Benin caught my attention. Amnesty International had recorded 14 people – 10 Beninese, two Nigerians, one Togolese and one Ivorian – being the last remaining people on death row in Benin. However, little was known about these men who were kept on death row, despite Benin being a party to an international treaty which prohibits judicial executions in the country and commits it to the abolition of the death penalty.

The men had all been languishing on death row, under grim conditions, for close to two decades. They were in a limbo, they could not be executed because of Benin’s treaty obligations, yet they remained on death row suffering all the dire consequences that came with being condemned prisoners. In May 2016, I was part of an Amnesty International delegation to Benin which visited the men, met with the authorities and advocated for a commutation of their death sentences.

Following the visit, in January 2017, Amnesty published a briefing which highlighted the plight of the men and called on the authorities to commute their death sentences. This was followed by the launch of a petition,  in July 2017, which renewed our call for commutation and mounted pressure on the authorities to implement it. Over 3,000 Amnesty activists signed the petition. In February of last year our advocacy paid off as the President of Benin commuted the death sentences of the men to life imprisonment.

At the end of July, together with colleagues from AI Benin, I visited the 14 men in prison for the second time. This time the death sentences and uncertainty that hung over the men during my last visit no longer existed. Although they are still in prison, they are completely free from the shackles of the death penalty and their right to life restored. As the men were ushered, one after the other, into a meeting room in Akpro-Missérété Prison some of them beamed with smiles on seeing the Amnesty delegation. They expressed thanks to Amnesty for advocating for the commutation of their death sentences. Saibou Latifou stated: ‘We thank Amnesty International, if not for you we will still be on death row. We are happy that we are no longer on death row.’ Another man, Christophe Yaovi Azonhito said: ‘Saying thank you is too small for all that Amnesty International did for us. We want you to pass our gratitude to AI members around the world.’

The death row section of the prison, where the men had been locked up for years, has been converted into a general prison dormitory. After years of isolation and suffering on death row, the 14 men now live within the general prison population, can engage in recreational activities and three of them have been made dormitory leaders by the prison authorities.

As I bid the 14 men farewell and walked out of the prison I felt a great sense of fulfilment. I was encouraged that Amnesty’s work yields positive results and hoped that before too long the death penalty in the world will be completely consigned to history.