In commemoration of the 19th World Day Against Death Penalty, lawyers and civil society organisations have called on the federal and state governments to review the use of death penalty in Nigeria’s laws.

The groups, the Legal Defence and Assistance Project (LEDAP) and Human Rights Law Service (HURILAWS), made the call during a media discussion on the need for the abolition of the death penalty in Nigeria.

The World Day Against the Death Penalty is observed every 10 October , with the 2021 edition themed; “Women and the Death Penalty: an Invisible Reality.”

The day unifies the global movement on the abolition of death penalty, with the civil society, political leaders, lawyers, public opinion mobilised to support the universal abolition of capital punishment.

This year’s event focuses on women who have been executed, sentenced to death, or have had their death sentences commuted, exonerated, or pardoned, while still drawing attention to the peculiarities and factors that predispose women to alleged crimes and weigh on their sentencing.

According to the Death Penalty Project, 110 countries in the world have abolished death sentence for all crimes, with Sierra Leone being the most recent country to abolish same, despite having no executions carried out since 1998.

54 countries, including Nigeria still retain death penalty, with eight countries permitting death penalty only for very serious crimes and 32 countries still have death penalty but have not used then in the last 10 years.

According to Amnesty International, 1,477 death sentences were imposed in 54 countries, in 2020, a 36% reduction from the 2,307 sentences recorded in 2019.

“At the end of 2020, at least 28,567 people were known to be under sentence of death. The following methods of execution were used across the world in 2020: beheading, electrocution, hanging, lethal injection and shooting,” Amnesty International said.

Death Penalty in Nigeria

Nigeria is one of the countries that upholds the use of death sentence as a capital punishment in its penal code, with judges in the high courts and sharia courts sentencing convicted persons to death.

In August 2020, an upper Sharia court in the Hausawa Filin Hockey area of Kano state sentenced a musician, Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, 22, to death by hanging for blaspheming against the Prophet Muhammad.

In a recent statement by Nigeria’s
Minister of Interior, Rauf Aregbesola, 3,008 convicted persons are waiting for their date with the executioners in the correctional facilities. This figure comprises 2,952 males and 56 females.

Mr Aregbesola, who urged state governors to sign the death warrants of the 3,008 convicted persons, said it is an avenue to decongest prisons, accelerate the wheel of justice, and curb miscarriage of justice for people spending longer terms than sentenced.

This call was, however, publicly condemned by civil societies, lawyers and international organisations including Amnesty International.

Despite the calls to sign the death warrants of people on death row, the last execution done in Nigeria was on 23 December

, 2016, with three death row prisoners put to death in Benin Prison, Edo state.

Their executions were carried out following years of self-imposed ‘moratorium’ on death sentences in Nigeria.

Calls for review of death penalty

LEDAP and HURILAWS, in a joint statement, called for a review of the use of capital punishment in Nigeria pending a wholesome reform of the criminal justice system to foster arrival at guilty verdicts devoid of reasonable doubts.

Commemorating this year’s event, the groups urged the Nigerian government to work towards abolishing death penalty in Nigeria as it has not in any way served as deterrent for the crimes for which it is served.

Speaking on this year’s theme; “Women and the Death Penalty; an Invisible Reality,” the groups said gender discrimination, coupled with other factors such as age, sexual orientation, disability, religion, and culture expose women to structural inequalities and such prejudices can weigh heavily on their sentencing.

“This discrimination can also lead to inadequate consideration of critical mitigating factors during arrest and trial, including the specific vulnerabilities of women and likely patterns of abuse and gender-based violence that could have been triggers.

“While working towards the complete abolition of the death penalty worldwide for all crimes and for all genders, it is crucial to caution against the discrimination women in Nigeria face and the impact of such discrimination on women in conflict with the law within our criminal justice system,” the groups said.

Reacting to the July 2021 call by Mr Aregbesola on the signing warrants of death row inmates in states across Nigeria, the groups said Nigeria should rather focus on reducing the 74% of awaiting trial inmates in the correctional facilities than executing death row inmates as a decongestion measure.

LEDAP disclosed that on behalf of all death row inmates in Nigeria, it filed a suit at the Federal High sitting in Abuja in Suit No: FHC/ABJ/CS/1169/2020 Nnenna Obi & Godwin Pius v Comptroller General of Prisons & 36 Governors, seeking a declaration that the imposition of capital punishment infringes the right to dignity of human person and seeks a restraining order against the Comptroller General of Prisons and the 36 State Governors of Nigeria from executing death row inmates.

The groups called on federal and state governments to announce an official moratorium on all executions in Nigeria until all inadequacies in the criminal justice system are addressed and amend laws that provide for death sentence and replace same with life imprisonment or a term of years.

Speaking to PREMIUM TIMES, Abdul Mahmud, a lawyer, social critic, columnist, and human rights advocate, said there is a need to review the use of death sentence in Nigeria and ultimately abolish it.

Mr Mahmud said the available data on death penalty does not clearly show whether this form of capital punishment serves as crime recidivism or as a deterrent.

“With the increasing rates of violent crimes often resulting in violent deaths, one questions the usefulness of the death penaltyin our penal laws and calls for its abolition.

“If the death penalty has served no useful deterrence, why still have it preserved as part of our laws? Beyond data, there’s a sense in which law provides consequences for individual violent actions, which result in death; but a long custodial sentence as life imprisonment serves as much punishment for taking someone else’s life,” he said.

The lawyer said the refusal of governors to sign death warrants for execution means that prisoners on death row may have to wait till the natural end of their lives in terrible prison conditions. He said that that raises the questions of whether long prison terms is not sufficient punishment for an offence and if the refusal of the state governors to sign death warrants of death row prisoners, while being subject to harrowing conditions doesn’tconstitute an abuse of their right to dignity.

“It can be technically argued that the long prison terms serve as punishment; but would our court be Liberal to hold that it is in view of the Supreme Court decision in Onuoha Kalu v State?” he said.

Another lawyer, Orji Ama, said the right to life is fundamental and when people take other people’s lives, justice needs to be served to the victim, the suspect and the society.

“The death penalty, why is it there? Law is actually made in order to deter criminals from committing crimes. But one thing you have to ask is that is this law actually making people not to commit crime?

“The abolition of death penalty is somehow complicated, some states still uphold death penalty for special offences. I still think for special offences, Nigeria should retain death penalty but should be given in extreme circumstance and measures,” Mr Ama said.

Mr Ama said he does not subscribe to the complete abolition of death penalty and the capital punishment should be reviewed and retained for only extreme crimes.

The lawyer said while offences like armed robbery can be given different sentences like life imprisonment, but a crime such as terrorism should not be overlooked.

“But again, currently our governors are not signing death warrants, if you go to prison,many people are still on the row. The governors are even afraid to sign death warrants

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