October 10, 2018 is World Day against the Death Penalty. A day set aside every year to globally advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. The theme for this year is ‘Dignity for All; It aims at raising awareness on the inhuman living conditions of people sentenced to death; their physical and psychological sufferings which can in most cases amount to torture. Under Nigerian law a judge is required to sentence to death any person found guilty of a capital offence: ‘The sentence of the court upon you is that you be hanged by the neck until you be dead and may the lord have mercy on your soul’. While a judge is mandatorily required to pronounce this on conviction in a capital offense, the law requires the Governor acting under the recommendation of the Advisory Council on the Prerogative of Mercy to order execution or commutation to life imprisonment or some other prison term or pardon.
In practice, since May 29, 1999, most state governors have failed, refused or neglected to sign warrant of execution. The result is that death sentences are handed down by the courts and are not carried out. According to Amnesty International Global Report on Death Sentences and Executions 2017, 2285 persons are known to be under the sentence of death in Nigeria as at December 2017. In 2017 alone 621 persons were sentenced to death. For many of these death row prisoners, conditions are traumatic, harsh and dehumanizing. Most death row cells are 7 by 8 feet, shared by three to five people, the cells are dark and with hardly any ventilation. Prisoners use buckets as toilets and sleep on the bare floor. The average period spent on death row by prison inmates in Nigeria is between 10-15 years. Many death row prisoners have developed mental illness during their long stay in prison and on death row.
In Nemi v. Attorney-General of Lagos State (1996) 6 NWLR 42 at 55 the Court of Appeal has held that a convict on death row is entitled to right to dignity of human person and so should not be subjected to torture, inhuman or degrading treatment arising from a prolonged delay in executing him. HURILAWS of the view that since the Death Sentence passed on convicts are never carried out and will never be carried out; there is no more constitutional justification for the Sentence of Death. The punishment of death is protected under Section 33 (1) CFRN 1999 ‘ in the execution of the sentence of a court’ and when those who should sign death warrants are unwilling to, it becomes clear that the Sentence of Death is unconstitutional since Section 33 (1) covers execution not sentencing in vain keeping the convicts in the Death Row indefinitely. On this World 16th World Day Against the Death Penalty, HURILAWS calls on Judges in Nigeria to employ activism to declare this practice unconstitutional. HURILAWS also calls on federal and state governments in Nigeria to stop torturing and traumatizing death row inmates by either abolishing the death penalty or signing into law a death penalty moratorium law.
Collins Okeke – Senior Legal/Programme Officer
HURILAWS – 10/10/2018