HURILAWS provides legal aid/assistance to victims of human rights violations and has been working on the reform of the Criminal Justice system since 1997. From mid 1997, HURILAWS and the Inter-African Network for Human Rights and Development (AFRONET), in collaboration with the Justice Development and Peace Commission (JDPC) of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, executed a pilot project in 2 Lagos prisons to test the feasibility of a major national initiative to decongest prison populations, by securing the discharge of Awaiting Trial Persons. HURILAWS continued with the JDPC and carried out extensive legal aid programmes to decongest Nigeria's overcrowded prisons. This was done in phases under the HURILAWS' National Prison Project and began with Project 500, which provided legal services to 500 indigent Awaiting Trial Prisoners [ATPs] in two (2) Lagos prisons. Project 500 was very successful and its successful implementation provided HURILAWS with the technical skills and practical experience for the implementation of the second phase of the National Prison Project, the Enugu Prison project and the third phase, Project 100. The Enugu Prison Project (EPP) was borne out of the need to decongest, improve and bring relief to prisoners and their living conditions in the prisons.

The need for this service became apparent when Olisa Agbakoba, HURILAWS’ Senior Counsel, was detained at the Enugu prison in 1998, by the former maximum ruler, the late General Sanni Abacha. His experiences confirmed the belief that Nigerian prisons are under pressure arising from congestion and poor living conditions. With the release of our Senior Counsel from Enugu prisons in   1998, HURILAWS launched the Enugu Prisons Project (EPP) that released 579 ATPS.  The project brought to the public view and the government’s attention, the conditions of death row inmates. The then Federal military government, led by Rtd. General Abdusalami Abubaka, commissioned judges to sit in the prisons to hear cases without the usual problem of transporting the prisoners to  court, which is one of the main causes of delays in court processes. HURILAWS also got involved with the Presidential Committee on Prison Decongestion, which made a total of 7,000 releases across Nigeria’s prisons in 1999.

HURILAWS and the National Human Rights Commission had been creating awareness on Nigeria’s overflowing prisons and their deplorable living conditions. The then Federal military government, led by Rtd. General Abdusalami Abubakar, set up a task force on prison decongestion in 1998 to make recommendations on the release of prisoners across Nigeria. A staff of HURILAWS was a member of the Committee and he made a case for death row prisoners and their living conditions and the Committee started deliberating on the status of death row inmates and condemned men and made recommendations for their release, which resulted in some of them being granted amnesty and released.

EPP addressed some of the problems identified in the prison. Test cases, Edmund Okoro & 66 Ors v The Comptroller of Prison, Enugu and Arthur Onyejekwe Vs Comptroller, Prison Services, Enugu & Anor. were used in this regard to challenge the prolonged incarceration on death row and pitiable conditions of death row inmates and to establish the principle that a prisoner has a right to counsel of choice at the earliest opportunity after arrest. In June 1998, HURILAWS filed a case at the Federal High Court, Enugu, to stop further execution of death row inmates until the issue of its constitutionality was determined. The Federal High Court Judge of Enugu State granted this prayer pending the Supreme Court’s decision on two of our cases, Onuoha Kalu v the State and Azeez Okoro v the State, challenging the constitutionality and application of the death penalty and death row conditions. Unfortunately, HURILAWS lost the suit in December 1998 at the Supreme Court in Abuja, which affirmed and upheld the constitutionality of the death penalty and ruled that the court lacked jurisdiction to annul the death penalty because it is a matter that can only be decided by the legislature, and Nigeria was not yet a democratic state. As a result, we decided to carry our campaign against the death penalty to the House of Representatives when Nigeria would become a democracy. For Public Advocacy, HURILAWS organised enlightenment campaigns with Amnesty International, Nigeria Section, on the need for the abolition of the death penalty.

In January 2000, President Olusegun Obasanjo granted amnesty to some categories of death row inmates to the effect that those that had spent up to 20 years and above in prison custody should be released unconditionally, while those that had spent up to 10 years and less than 20 years should have their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment. The problem then arose as to how to determine the actual date prison custody began to run. Would it be from the date of first detention or the date of conviction? The prison officials at Enugu prison were of the opinion that the date should be calculated from the date of conviction but HURILAWS was of the opinion that the date should be calculated from the date of detention. On this wise, HURILAWS had to go to court in May 2000 to determine the actual date. HURILAWS won the case in February 2001, at Enugu State High Court, in Edmund Okoro & 69 Ors v The Minister of Internal Affairs, Attorney General of the Federation & The Comptroller General, Nigerian Prisons Service. The Judge, after considering the facts of the case before him, ruled in HURILAWS’ favour that the date should be calculated from the date of first detention. We are pushing for the calculation to be implemented across Nigerian prisons and not just for the prisoners on whose behalf we went to court. When this is done many death row inmates would be released.

HURILAWS launched another prison project called Project 1000, in late 1998, to release 1000 ATP's across Nigerian prisons. The project was supported by MISEREOR, Germany and the European Union (EU). In 2002, we concluded another Project 1000, supported by the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), which released 1000 ATPs from South-East and South-West Prisons in Nigeria. The experiences gathered in the implementation of these projects have motivated and empowered HURILAWS to develop and set up Project 5000, the sixth phase of our National Prison Project. We recognise that providing legal aid alone is only a short-term measure to prison decongestion. While making retail releases, we have to develop the medium and long-term measures which would be, putting in place a standard penal policy that would be easy to implement and would meet International standards like the Standard Minimum Rules [SMRs] for the treatment of Prisoners adopted by the 1st United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, held in Geneva 1955, and subsequently approved by the United Nations Economic and Social Council in 1957 and 1977.

We are motivated to do this by the realisation that an effective national administration of justice system is the key to human rights protection and critical to restoring the rule of law in Nigeria. In this regard, HURILAWS has been working with the British Council, Lagos and the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies [NIALS], Lagos since 1997 on court procedures, tagged the Nigerian Court Procedures Project [NCPP], to unearth the problems of slow court processes. The slow pace of judicial processes, alongside undue delays and incessant adjournments that have become endemic in the Nigerian Judicial System, has ensured that many suspects remain in prison for unusually long and often indeterminate periods of time before their cases are ultimately disposed of.  The project discovered that slow court processes caused by a myriad of problems is a big contributory factor to prison congestion and so a set of rules are being drafted and printed by HURILAWS on reforming court procedures in Nigeria which will positively impact on the criminal justice system. The ripple effect on prison decongestion is all too obvious.

In addition, to reforming penal policies of Nigeria, HURILAWS have used some dockets in our Strategic Impact Litigation Project (SIL) to challenge some of the practices of the Judicial and Criminal Justice sectors that fuel prison congestion. Some of the projects are the HOLDING CHARGE PROJECT and the DEATH PENALTY PROJECT.

Further, in mid 2000, HURILAWS, with the support and collaboration of USAID, held a multi-donor Stakeholders Forum on Legal and Justice Sector Reform and there it was recognised that one of the central themes of justice sector reform is the reform of the Nigerian prison system. HURILAWS is also taking this forward by organising a stakeholders forum on penal reform, which will bring together NGOs and government bodies working on penal reform to identify areas of interest and harmonise ways of effectively carrying out penal reform and development of alternative to prison custody programmes.

We have also developed and published a Prisoner’s Rights Manual, as part of our legal advisory service to prisoners, which was supported by the French Embassy in Nigeria.

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