Nigeria: Criminal justice system utterly failing Nigerian people; majority of inmates not convicted of any crime

(Abuja, Nigeria) Amnesty International today exposed the appalling state of Nigeria’s prison system, saying that Nigeria’s prisons are filled with people whose human rights are being systematically violated.

The organization said that the criminal justice system is utterly failing the Nigerian people, calling it a “conveyor belt of injustice, from beginning to end.”

In a detailed and scathing 50-page report, the organization reveals how at least 65 percent of Nigeria’s inmates have never been convicted of any crime, with some awaiting trial for up to ten years; how most in Nigerian prisons are too poor to afford a lawyer, with only one in seven awaiting trial having access to private legal representation – with only 91 legal aid lawyers working in the country; and how appalling prison conditions, including severe overcrowding, are seriously damaging the mental and physical health of thousands.

Torture by police is also routine and widespread, with “confessions” extracted by torture often used as evidence in trials.

“The problems in Nigerian’s criminal justice system – especially its prisons — are so blatant and egregious that the Nigerian government has had no choice but to recognize them — and has pledged many times that it will reform the system,” said Aster van Kregten, Amnesty International’s Nigeria researcher, speaking at a press conference in Abuja.

“However, the reality is that those in prison stand little chance of their rights being respected. Those without money stand even less chance. Some could end up spending the rest of their lives behind bars in appalling conditions without ever having been convicted of a crime — sometimes simply due to their case files having been lost by the police.”

“Many inmates awaiting trial are effectively presumed guilty – despite the fact that there is little evidence of their involvement in the crime of which they are accused.”

Amnesty International also revealed how all too often, people not suspected of committing any crime are imprisoned along with convicted criminals. Some were arrested in place of a family member the police could not locate; others suffer from mental illness and were brought to prison by families unable or unwilling to take care of them. Most have no lawyer to advocate on their behalf.

In one such case, Bassy, a 35-year-old woman with mental illness, was brought to prison by her brother, who said the family could no longer cope with her. Prison authorities classified Bassy as a “civil lunatic.” Accused of no crime and never brought before a judge, Bassy spent almost three years in prison, sleeping on the floor in a cell with 11 women. After the intervention of PRAWA, a Nigerian non-governmental organization dealing with the welfare of prisoners, Bassy was finally transferred to a hospital, where she is now receiving treatment.

“When a state arrests or imprisons someone solely because they are a relative of a suspect or because they suffer from mental illness, they are violating that persons right not to be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention – a right guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” said van Kregten.

Cases take so long to get to court that once an inmate has been tried and convicted, they are reluctant to launch an appeal. Even those claiming innocence say they risk staying in prison longer waiting for their appeal to be heard and than if they simply serve their sentence.

Amnesty International also highlighted the plight of prison staff, who work long and stressful hours for low wages that are often paid late. Poor pay often leads to petty extortion of prisoners, and staff shortages create security risks for both staff and inmates. Inmates are often relied on to govern themselves and have taken on disciplinary functions, including meting out corporal punishment, close confinement and diet restrictions – all of which do not comply with international standards.

“The Nigerian government is simply not complying with its national and international obligations when it comes to the criminal justice system in Nigeria and must begin to do so seriously and urgently,” said van Kregten. “The conditions we saw and the stories we heard from inmates are a national scandal.”

Background information The Nigerian government has, on numerous occasions, stated its willingness to reform the criminal justice system, acknowledging its role in creating a situation of prolonged detention and overcrowding. Despite many presidential commissions and committees recommending reform, the recommendations have not been implemented. Instead, the government has set up new committees and commissions to study, review and harmonize the previous recommendations.

To see a full copy of the report “Nigeria: Prisoner’s rights systematically flouted,” please click here.