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Press releases Special Procedures


08 July 2005

8 July 2005

Professor Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, made the following statement to media in Abuja today at the end of a visit to Nigeria:

“Permit me first of all to express my most sincere condolences to the families of all those killed, and to those injured, in the bombings of the London transport system on 7th July 2005. These executions must be condemned as barbaric and criminal. They are unacceptable, no matter what justifications the killers may seek to invoke. We must reject unequivocally the killing of all innocent civilians and non-combatants by no matter whom and in no matter what circumstances.

“Let me turn now to the preliminary findings of my visit to Nigeria.

“The Government of Nigeria is to be commended for its positive response to the requests made by several of the special procedures of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights by facilitating their visits to the country. My visit is the third to be undertaken in the space of a few months and I am gratified by the degree of cooperation demonstrated by the Government of Nigeria and also by the various States Governments involved in my visit. At a time when Nigeria is seeking to obtain a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and is involved in continuing negotiations for further debt-forgiveness, such cooperation takes on particular significance.

“In the course of two weeks in Nigeria I have been able to visit and undertake extensive interviews in the States of Lagos, Kano, Rivers State and Bayelsa State as well as in the Federal Territory of Abuja. In addition, I have received a large amount of information provided by both the Federal and State Governments, international organizations, civil society groups, and transnational corporations operating in Nigeria. In particular, I have received information from individuals involved in all parts of the criminal justice system. These range from Attorneys-General and Solicitors-General, through Chief Judges, Directors of Public Prosecution, Prison Commissioners and legal advocates, to the relatives of victims and a great many prisoners (including those convicted, those on remand, and well over 100 on death row). I also inspected the prison at Port Harcourt to learn more about the breakout that occurred recently.

“The main issues which will be dealt with in my report are those which the UN Commission on Human Rights has specifically requested me to examine. They include; (a) the failure to meet international standards relating to the imposition of capital punishment; (b) deaths in custody due to torture, neglect, or the life-threatening conditions of detention; (c) deaths due to the use of force by law enforcement officials when the use of force is inconsistent with the criteria of absolute necessity and proportionality; (d) unjustified killings undertaken by the security forces; (e) deaths attributable to vigilante groups or gangs whose actions are encouraged or tolerated by the State; and (f) impunity, including denial of victims’ rights or of compensation to their relatives.

“I should emphasise that the comments included in this statement are only of a preliminary nature. My full and final report will be available within three months from now on the website of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Before the report is made public the Government of Nigeria will be given four weeks in which to point to any inaccuracies or mistakes in the report and any such observations will be taken fully into account in its finalization.

“Because our time today is limited I would like to draw your attention to four issues, each of which is symptomatic of broader problems existing within Nigerian society today. These are presented in the spirit of the remarks made earlier this year by the Acting Inspector-General of Police Sunday Ehindero who noted in February this year that ‘the days of extra-judiciary killings’ by the police and of ‘corruption in the service’ must end. I wholeheartedly endorse those comments.

“The first situation is now commonly known in Nigeria as that of the Apo 6. The details have been covered exhaustively in the press and in the proceedings of the judicial inquiry. I do not need to repeat them here. Let me only add that almost all of the ingredients, from the killings of alleged robbers, to the fraudulent placement of weapons, to the failure to undertake proper post mortem procedures, to the denial of wrongdoing and to the flight of a senior accused police officer, have been repeated many times over in relation to cases brought to my attention during my visit. The good news is that for what I understand to be the very first time the Federal Government intervened and established a judicial commission of inquiry. The fact that the police inquiry was open to the public was also a commendable innovation. Such procedures need to become routine in such cases if the police are to get the message that they cannot kill innocent individuals and subsequently label them as armed robbers.

“The second concerns the case of six persons accused of a bank robbery which took place in Enugu on January 27, 2005. The accused, mostly university students, were arrested from various locations during March and April and were transferred to the Ogui Area Command in Enugu. On April 27, 2005 they were paraded before journalists at the State CID in Enugu to highlight the anti-crime measures being used by the police. Photographs of the six in handcuffs were widely published in the press. “Millionaire Robbers; Police Smash gang which stole N28m from bank,” The Sun, May 12, 2005.

“Human rights groups feared that this public parade of ‘criminals’ (suspects who should have been presumed innocent until found guilty) signified the prelude to a ‘traditional’ execution by the police. Accordingly, the Nigerian Civil Liberties Organisation wrote to the State Police Commissioner on 31 March, to the Federal Attorney-General on 5 May, and to the National Human Rights Commission on 6 May, calling upon the authorities to ensure that the accused were taken before a judge and protected from ‘imminent execution’. Three days later, and after some had been in police custody for more than a month rather than being brought before a judge and remanded to prison to await trial, all six accused were killed in an alleged attempt to escape from detention. According to information provided to me in interviews with relatives of the dead men, not one of them was merely wounded, not one was shot only in the leg, and not one was rushed to a doctor for medical attention. There is no information available to me to indicate that an inquiry has been launched, or that any police officers are being investigated or have been charged. Letters from human rights groups and the families are alleged to have elicited no response from the police. Human Rights Watch email correspondence, May 6, 2005 and telephone conversation May 13, 2005.

“A press report, published over a month later reported the deaths by quoting ‘an insider at the police headquarters’ who indicated that all of the accused had asked to go to the toilet at virtually the same time. According to the source, ‘soon afterward they began to make funny movements which suggested that the boys were ready to escape from jail. For a sensible policeman under such predicament and who had his rifle loaded, the next option available would be to gun the suspect down and that was exactly what may have happened.’

“This scenario, which unfortunately seems not to be uncommon, is utterly lacking in plausibility. But even if it were true, it would represent an entirely disproportionate use of force to subdue individuals who were unarmed, were still within police custody, and were very far from having escaped.

“While I do not for a moment under-estimate the scourge of armed robbery which plagues too much of Nigeria, there is no doubt in my mind that the label of armed robbers is very often used to justify the jailing of innocent individuals who have come to the attention of the police for reasons ranging from a refusal to pay a bribe to inconveniencing or insulting the police or some general offence against public order. But an effective campaign against armed robbery requires fundamentally different tactics.

“The third set of issues concerns the death penalty. As of 2004 there were 530 condemned convicts on death row in Nigeria. In the course of the past two weeks I have spoken on an individual basis with more than 20% of this group. Last year an official study group observed that the average period spent on death row is 20 years, and that many of these persons suffer from serious mental illnesses. From my observations the risk to the health of these prisoners of the conditions under which they are kept is also immense. I would strongly endorse the recommendation of that study group ‘that the sentences of all inmates presently on death row whose appeals have been concluded should be commuted to life imprisonment.’ The Report of the National Study Group on Death Penalty, Abuja, August 2004, p. 81.

“I met several prisoners who claimed to be well below the age of 18 when they committed the crimes for which they have been sentenced to death. This practice clearly violates the international legal obligations of the Nigerian Government and I would urge that immediate investigations be undertaken to ensure that no such persons remain under sentence of death.

"My third death penalty concern arises from the approach of the Shari’a courts. Under the the Shari’a Penal Code capital offences in Nigeria are said to ‘include adultery (zina), apostasy (ridda), rebellion (bag’yi), and Hiraba, translated as highway robbery … . The Report of the National Study Group on Death Penalty, Abuja, August 2004, para Considerable attention has been given in Nigeria and internationally to a handful of much publicized cases in which the Shari’a courts have prescribed death by stoning for women found guilty of zina. In responding to questions about these cases put by the Special Rapporteur, several judges of the Appeals Court of the Grand Khadi of Kano recalled the injunction attributed to the Prophet to ‘[p]ut off the hudud (prescribed) penalties in cases of uncertainty’.

“The Special Rapporteur subsequently met in with a ‘condemned convict’ who has been sentenced to death by a Shari’a court for committing sodomy. The accused denied the accusation leveled at him based on allegations presented by a Hisbah Committee, but confessed to the judge that he had previously engaged in homosexual acts. On the basis of that confession he was apparently convicted and is now on death row awaiting execution by stoning. Assuming that the facts of this case as presented to me are correct, I would call for immediate measures to review the entire proceedings. Sodomy cannot be considered one of the most serious crimes for which, under international law, the death penalty can be prescribed. The punishment is wholly disproportionate.

“The fourth and final set of issues to which I would draw attention concerns the response to major incidents involving serious violations of human rights including large-scale loss of life. I have been presented with detailed dossiers documenting cases of abuse by the security forces. These cases are well known in Nigeria. All too often the response has been to establish commissions of inquiry in order to defuse the situation but then not to publish the resulting report. Instead a Government White Paper may or may not eventually emerge and it may or may not address the issues identified by the inquiry. Similarly, the commission will not always consider that it has the obligation to query the reported number of deaths claimed by the police or armed forces. This means that the commission is not demonstrating the indispensable element of independence required in order both to establish credibility and to provide a foundation for meaningful recommendations.

“In my final report I will be providing more information in relation to these and other issues.

“I want to conclude by emphasizing that while my mission has been designed primarily to ascertain the facts in relation to extrajudicial executions I have seen many encouraging developments during my stay. In particular, the fight against corruption at all levels is closely linked to the issues with which I am concerned. Recent prosecutions and actions taken by the Government are to be strongly welcomed. I am also greatly impressed by the Community Policing Initiative which the Nigerian Police have launched. I met yesterday for all too short a time with several of the senior officers involved in that initiative and it seems to me to be extremely promising.

“Concerted efforts must be made to enhance the quality and effectiveness of policing. While successive Inspectors-General of Police have proposed far-reaching reform programs these have achieved all too little in practice, as this report demonstrates. There is, however, no option but to promote more effective and far-reaching initiatives which are capable of garnering the support of both the public and the police themselves. There is no doubt that rank and file police are paid too little. Such salaries clearly invite corruption.

“There is a problem, however, with calls to increase police salaries significantly. Public and thus political support for such efforts will be lacking as long as the police are generally seen to be corrupt and inept, and their activities to be generally inimical to citizen well-being. While some limited efforts have been made to provide human rights training to the police, including by the National Human Rights Commission, these efforts will not succeed in isolation. The starting point is for the police, at all levels, to begin to see that it is in their own interests to clean up their act. If the community policing initiative can really develop effectively with national leadership and widespread support from within the ranks of the police it has the potential to begin to break the vicious cycle”.

Biographical Note:
Philip Alston is an Australian national who is currently Professor of Law at New York University. From 1991-1998 he chaired the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. He is currently also Special Adviser on the Millennium Development Goals to the High Commissioner for Human Rights.