The death penalty and condemned prisoners — The Guardian Editorial

Posted by News Express | 21 September 2022 | 160 times

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Ostensibly raising an alarm over the congestion of the correctional centres in Lagos State, the Lagos State Command of the Nigerian Correctional Service (NCOs) recently observed that no fewer than 353 inmates are currently on death row at the Kirikiri Correctional Centre.

As disturbing as it is, the remark has once again thrown up the lingering jurisprudential issues on the constitutionality, propriety, philosophical underpinning or otherwise of the death penalty or prolonged incarceration in dehumanising conditions of prisoners on death row and the rights of prisoners to humane treatment.

Paradoxically, since the then Edo State Governor, Adams Oshiomhole, signed a death warrant sanctioning the execution of two condemned prisoners in 2012, state governors in Nigeria have been reluctant in signing death warrants.

Last year, the Minister of Interior, Rauf Aregbesola requested state governors to comply with their constitutional duty of signing death warrants for death row inmates; but the request died down unheeded.

Many senior lawyers and human rights institutions faulted the minister’s proposition. One senior lawyer drew the attention of the minister to the fact that he did not sign any death warrant throughout his eight-year reign as Osun State governor. Also faulting the minister’s proposal, the human rights group, Access to Justice, stated that many convicts on death row in Nigeria have pending appeals against their convictions and therefore, the minister’s proposal would put them at the risk of execution before the determination of their appeals in court.

The reluctance of state governors to sign death warrants is not unconnected with the pervading cultural, moral, religious and philosophical convictions regarding the sanctity and inviolability of human life rooted in the fact that God created human life and no man can take away human life except God the Creator. All world religions and cultures respect the sanctity of human life.

Coming back home, the death penalty is contrary to the Yoruba idiomatic expression that cutting off the head is not the cure for a nagging headache. Recall that while in power, former President Olusegun Obasanjo issued a presidential order to the effect that anyone on death row for over 10 years should have his or her death sentence commuted to life imprisonment, while those on death row for over 20 years should be released from prison.

For condemned prisoners awaiting the hangman’s noose indefinitely in a correctional centre, it is double jeopardy: imprisonment for an unending term plus the terrible anxiety and anguish of indefinitely awaiting the hangman’s noose.

When an accused person is sentenced to death and thereafter not executed by reason that his or her death warrant has not been signed by the state governor, he or she begins to serve a separate penalty, which is imprisonment for a term uncertain. Thus, for the 353 inmates on death row in Lagos State plus others across the country, they die day by day as they await a hangman who may never come.

As a result, their fundamental human rights to dignity of the human person and personal liberty under sections 34 and 35 respectively of the 1999 Constitution and Article 4 of the African Charter on Peoples and Human rights domesticated by Nigeria, are violated.

In Peter Nemi V Attorney-General of Lagos State, the Supreme Court held that the right to life is available even to condemned prisoners or prisoners on death row until their execution is carried out according to the law. Therefore, to deny them their fundamental rights merely on the basis of a death sentence passed on them cannot stand the test of civilised conduct, as it debases their intrinsic worth as human beings.

The court also held in the aforesaid case that to starve a condemned prisoner to death or allow him to die systematically and by instalment in prison is a great violation of his right to life and personal dignity.

On this matter of the death penalty, this newspaper paper maintains its long-held position that human life is inviolable and should not be deliberately and intentionally taken away by a human being, but only by God the Creator.

The law: “thou shall not kill” is written on everyone’s heart, be he a Christian, a Muslim or a Pagan or a Hindu or a nihilist or a traditional religious worshipper. Human life is the first and greatest gift, most eloquently conveyed in the Latin maxim: vivre viventibus est esse (to living things life is existence).

In this regard, the fate of those on death row should not be hanging in the balance simply because state governors are undecided whether or not to sign the death warrants. Therefore, state governors who are refusing to sign death warrants should at least commute the death sentences to life imprisonment.

To keep prisoners on death row in indefinite incarceration amid the whims and caprices or the procrastination of state governors, is, to say the least, a monumental injustice that cries to the high heavens for remedy. 

More importantly, considering that the death penalty is not a deterrent to capital crime coupled with the fact that some condemned prisoners are victims of a miscarriage of justice, our lawmakers at all levels should consider abolishing the death penalty totally by quashing the death penalty provisions in the country’s statutes as most countries are now doing.

Equatorial Guinea, regarded as one of the world’s most authoritarian countries, is about the latest to totally abolish the death penalty, according to a new law signed by President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.

In the alternative, Nigerian lawmakers should promulgate new laws to the effect that those sentenced to death should have their sentences automatically commuted to life imprisonment without the necessity of state governors ratifying the commutation.

The provisions of the Administration of Criminal Justice Law, 2015, must be deployed to address this issue, particularly Section 470 (1) (c ) of the Act which empowers the Administration of Criminal Justice Monitoring Committee to ensure that the correctional centres are decongested to the barest minimum.

Overall, the case for the abolition of the death penalty is overwhelming enough to warrant its abrogation in all statutes in Nigeria.

Given that any life mistakenly or prematurely taken is impossible of being restored, emphasis should be on all governments in the country to respect the sanctity of life; bestow good governance on the people and thus prevent the commission of many crimes that attract the death penalty.

Source: News Express

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