Lagos — African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR) - an organ of the African Union (AU) - headquartered in Banjul, The Gambia, has urged Abuja to stay the execution of more than 800 prisoners on death row across the country.
ACHPR based the plea on the allegation by the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) that the "government's only justification for executing the prisoners is to address prison congestion."
A statement issued by SERAP Executive Director, Adetokunbo Mumuni, said ACHPR granted the request by the SERAP asking it to urge Nigeria to stay the execution of the prisoners, maintain moratorium on the death penalty generally, and move towards abolition.
The urgent appeal sent last week to President Goodluck Jonathan by ACHPR Chairperson Zainabo Kayitesi followed a petition filed on June 23 by SERAP solicitor Femi Falana.
The petition asked ACHPR to "urgently invoke Article 111 (Rule of Procedure) authority to request that Nigeria adopts provisional measures in order to stop the irreparable damage that would be caused to the more than 800 complainants and their African Charter rights."
On Tuesday, Falana explained that, by its decision, ACHPR "has, once again, demonstrated its authority and progressive and expansive mandates to hold African governments accountable for their human rights commitments.
"In line with the expressed commitment of the current administration, we now expect that the Federal Government and Governors will move swiftly to implement the orders by the Commission by suspending any plan to execute the over 870 death row prisoners in the country.
"As the Chair of ECOWAS, Nigeria has a responsibility to show leadership and good example for others in the sub-region, and Africa as a whole."
SERAP had asked ACHPR to request Abuja, to, among other things, remove the complainants from death row or any risk of execution, and fully accord them their fair trial and other human rights, pending the final decision of ACHPR.
It wanted the government to give assurances that the prisoners, incarcerated in dehumanising conditions, will not be secretly executed.
It also asked that Abuja should give assurances that it will fully implement the resolutions on moratorium on executions as well as ensure that prisoners on death row receive fair trial and other international human rights guarantees applicable to their situation, including their right to appeal.
SERAP alleged that "there are serious, persistent and irreparable violations of the complainants' rights to life; to competent and effective legal representation; to trial within a reasonable time or to a release; to trial by a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal established by law; to the presumption of innocence; to appeal to an independent and impartial tribunal, and fair trial guarantees during appeals.
"The National Economic Council (NEC) meeting on June 15 (chaired by Vice President Namadi Sambo and attended by the 36 Governors) decided that Governors should urgently sign death warrants for death row prisoners with the aim of decongesting the prisons. This decision is a reaffirmation of the decision by the (NEC) in March."
The petition argued that the planned execution of more than 800 prisoners on death row on the sole ground of decongesting the prisons while several of them still have their appeal pending does not offer a fair and effective solution to the problem of overcrowding.
It noted that many inmates have been sentenced to death after blatantly unfair trials, which can take more than 10 years to conclude.
SERAP expressed "serious concern" that these Nigerians are at risk of imminent secret execution, and said it "received credible information" from the complainants that their mental and physical conditions are deteriorating.
"Like the African Charter, Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR), which Nigeria has also ratified, provides that 'no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.' The word 'arbitrarily' here means both 'illegally' and 'unjustly.'
"For the above reasons, SERAP considers that the planned execution of more than 800 prisoners on death row in Nigerian prisons, and application of the death penalty in these cases will be illegal and unjust.
"We consider supervening factors such as those highlighted above to be sufficient grounds for stopping the Nigerian Government from going ahead with the planned execution of the prisoners with the unjustified ground of serving to decongest the prisons."