Despite some progress, the killing of jailed suspects in Nigeria, the jailing of innocent citizens for refusing to pay bribes, the fraudulent placement of evidence, and the imposition of the death penalty by Muslim courts out of all proportion to the alleged offence are all too common in Africa's most populous country, the United Nations expert on extrajudicial killings said today.
In a statement to the media in Abuja, Nigeria's capital, at the end of a two-week visit, Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, focussed on four issues, "each of which is symptomatic of broader problems existing within Nigerian society today."
Citing first the highly publicized case of the killing of a group of alleged robbers, he declared, without going into the full details: "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 issue concerned six people, mostly university students, arrested in connection with a bank robbery in Enugu, who were killed in an alleged escape attempt.
"This scenario, which unfortunately seems not to be uncommon, is utterly lacking in plausibility," Mr. Alston said. "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 underestimate 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," he added.
Thirdly, on the death penalty, Mr. Alston noted that an official study group last year found the average period spent on death row was 20 years and he strongly endorsed the group's recommendation that the sentences of all inmates presently on death row whose appeals had been concluded should be commuted to life imprisonment.
With regard to Islamic Shari'a courts, Mr. Alston cited the case of a man awaiting execution by stoning for homosexual acts. "Sodomy cannot be considered one of the most serious crimes for which, under international law, the death penalty can be prescribed," he said. "The punishment is wholly disproportionate."
Finally, he highlighted the response to major incidents involving serious violations of human rights, including large-scale loss of life, citing detailed dossiers on cases of abuse by the security forces. "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," he said.
He concluded by stressing that while his mission was designed primarily to ascertain the facts in relation to extrajudicial executions, he had seen many encouraging developments. "In particular, the fight against corruption at all levels is closely linked to the issues with which I am concerned," he declared. "Recent prosecutions and actions taken by the Government are to be strongly welcomed."
Noting that his visit was the third undertaken in the space of a few months, he said he was gratified by the degree of cooperation demonstrated by the Nigerian Government and various state governments.
"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," he added.