A High Court ruling in Nigeria that the mandatory death sentence by hanging or firing squad is unconstitutional has been welcomed by London-based human rights organisation the Death Penalty Project (DPP).
The DPP has been working with lawyers in Nigeria for almost a decade to challenge the mandatory death penalty there – and they now hope this ruling may lead to the total abolition of the death penalty in Africa’s most populous country.
The High Court of Lagos State declared in September that the mandatory imposition of the death penalty on four prisoners and the proposed method of execution by either hanging or by firing squad was unconstitutional, a ruling welcomed by Saul Lehrfreund, co-executive director of the DPP. He said: ‘This is a significant development in Nigeria. Hopefully the restriction of the death penalty in this case will be a major step towards total abolition’.
The Legal Resources Consortium (LRC), a public interest law centre in Nigeria, brought the case, which has been pending since 2008. LRC was assisted by the Legal Defence and Assistance Project (LEDAP), which has been working with the DPP and assisted in preparing the legal arguments for the case.
In challenging the mandatory nature of the death penalty the applicants successfully relied on the decision of Francis Kafatayeni -v- Attorney General of Malawi (2007) in which the High Court of Malawi held that the mandatory, automatic nature of the death penalty for murder violated the right to life and amounted to inhuman punishment contrary to the Constitution of Malawi. Parvais Jabbar, co-executive director of the DPP said: ‘In recent years, the mandatory death penalty has also been declared unconstitutional in Uganda and Kenya and this encouraging development indicates that Nigeria is also moving to restrict the use of the death penalty’.
In his ruling, Justice Mufutau Olokoba held that mental torture was ‘an inevitable consequence of death sentence on the victims’. In addition, he said that execution by hanging or firing squad amounted to ‘a violation of the condemned’s right to dignity of the human person and inhuman and degrading treatment…and is consequently unconstitutional.’ The Court ordered that ‘the respondent (government of Lagos) is perpetually restrained from inflicting the penalty of death on the applicants by hanging or firing squad’.
The ruling means that the mandatory imposition of the death penalty for convicted murderers in Lagos is prohibited. Instead, the death penalty is now the maximum, but not the only, option open to the judge. A separate sentencing hearing will have to take place after conviction, providing the defendants with an opportunity to mitigate. The case has implications for the 220 prisoners currently under sentence of death in Lagos State whose mandatory death sentences are also invalid and who are also now entitled to be re-sentenced.
Chino Obiagwu, director of LEDAP, said: ‘The ruling is a major breakthrough in Nigeria. This decision will hopefully motivate state governments, especially the government of Lagos, to amend their criminal law to remove the mandatory aspect of the death penalty and to reconsider the method of execution. This is an encouraging development in the restriction of the death penalty in Nigeria, and will hopefully be a major step towards total abolition.’