BY SIMON EBEGBULEM
BENIN CITY – Last Monday June 24, 2013, Benin City residents woke up without knowing that a hang man was in town to snuff life out of four death row prisoners: Chima Ejiofor, Daniel Nsofor, Osarerenmwenda Aigbonkhan and Richard Igagu.
Their journey to death began on 26th September 2012, when Governor Adams Oshiomhole signed the death warrants of two of the convicted criminals, Daniel Nsofor and Aigbonkhia; while former Governor Lucky Igbinedion signed that of two others.
The prison where the gallows was situated is along the busy Sapele Road and while the environment may look peaceful, on that fateful day, the prison wardens and the hang man were busy organizing the execution of the convicts.
No doubt, most residents had no idea that the convicts went to court that day to battle for their lives, an appeal which was unfortunately rejected by the Federal High Court. They probably took their last meal after returning from the court and met the awaiting hang man who obviously arrived the ancient city few hours before the execution to do his duty and jet out of the town.
One of them robbed a family, raped the wife and inserted a bottle inside her private part until she died
It would be recalled that the same day Oshiomhole signed the death warrant of Nsofor and Aigbonkhia, he also granted amnesty to two prisoners condemned to death in exercise of his prerogative of mercy.The Governor pointed out that the prisoners, Monday Odu who was sentenced to death for conspiracy and murder and Calistus Ikem, sentenced for conspiracy and armed robbery were granted amnesty because they did not take the lives of their victims.
The Governor also commuted to life imprisonment the death sentence of two others: Tijani Mustapha, convicted for conspiracy and armed robbery; Zubem Abduramma, convicted for conspiracy and armed robbery; while Patrick Ojiefo who was convicted for assault on a police officer while discharging his lawful duty and served 6-months jail term in 1973 was granted pardon.
Speaking after granting amnesty to Odu and Ikem, Comrade Oshiomhole said: “You have been condemned to death for murder but we have exercised the prerogative of mercy to release you from prison for the offence, believing you have learnt your lesson.
You can still be useful to society and useful to yourself. You know the law enforcement agencies are there. If you commit another offence, you know your own is finished. However, having received good reports about your conduct in prison, I believe you can still be a good.”
While addressing Monday Odu, 32, a minor when he was convicted in 1997, Oshiomhole said, “We are letting you off the hook to go and sin no more. We will find a way to find a job for you under the Edo Youth Employment Scheme. You have no reason to return to crime and that means if you do anything again you are completely on your own”.
The governor told Calistus Ikem, 52, who was convicted in 1996 to be ready to work and cope with the rigours of life as he goes back to his family in Imo State.“You stole household items which could have taken your life. The government will give you N200,000 and another N100, 000 to Monday Odu to go and start all over. I hope you will be able to make something positive out of this your present condition”.
But the National Human Rights Commission kicked against the signing of the execution warrant on the two of the prisoners by the Governor, insisting that his action was inhuman. Oshiomhole quickly replied the Commission and Amnesty International that the convicts committed a heinous crime by killing their victims and therefore they didn’t deserve to live.
On 21 October 2012, Oshiomhole faulted the Rights groups and explained why he signed the death warrants.
“Agbomien killed his victim, dismembered his body and buried the parts in different places to avoid detection. When the convict was taken to court, he said his offence was a mistake but the manner in which he treated the body indicated that it was a gruesome, premeditated and wicked act,” he explained.
The Governor quoted excerpts of the Supreme Court judgment upholding Agbomien’s death sentence and according to the apex court, “the likes of Agbomien belong to Hades (hell).”
On Nsofor, Oshiomhole said he approved his death sentence because after robbing his victim, a woman, of her possessions, he subjected her to horrendous torture and thereafter killed her. According to the Governor, “the National Human Rights Commission was wrong.
They must be seen to be painstaking in matters of life and death. They must check their facts right. The state does not exercise mercy on such persons. I decided to free those who didn’t kill to go and sin no more. However, we must send a clear message to criminals that they have no right to kill and live.”
It will be recalled also, that President Goodluck Jonathan had recently directed state governors to sign execution warrants of death row inmates, admonishing them not to shy away from same as it was part of their duties.
However, after the Monday execution took place at about 6:45pm, the Legal Defence and Assistance Project (LEDAP) and Amnesty International condemned the action, particularly when there was a pending suit by the condemned inmates challenging their being on death row for over 15 years. They had also asked that
their conviction be commuted to life imprisonment.
Meanwhile, civil society organizations in Edo State also urged Governor Adams Oshiomhole to halt further action in signing execution warrants on convicted prisoners, calling on the state government to join the global call for the abolition of the death penalty.
The organizations which comprised: the African Network for Environment and Economic Justice (ANEEJ), Gani Fawehimi Movement for Good Governance (GFMFGG), Conference of Non- Governmental Organisations (CONGOs), Coalition of Edo Youth Organization (CEYO), South-South Youth League, made the call when they met with the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice in Edo State, Mr Henry Idahagbon, to kick against death penalty in the state’s laws.
Executive Director of the ANEEJ, Rev.David Ugolor, who disclosed that the group decided to meet with the Commissioner following the hanging of the four death row prisoners, urged the state government to support the call for the abolition of death penalty and appealed to the governor to halt further action on convicted criminals for the sake of humanity. The group however commended the state government “for improving on the criminal justice process by way of ensuring that the legal opinion from the Department for Public Prosecution will now be within 30 days which would to a large extent help speed up the administration of criminal justice in Edo State.
“We expressed our condolence to the families of those who were hanged and we hope that the Edo State government would stay further action in carrying out execution”.
However Saturday Vanguard spoke with the Edo State Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Barr.Henry Idahagbon and he explained the role of the state government in the execution. He also gave a vivid account of how the hanged inmates butchered their victims.
Human Rights groups have condemned the execution of four inmates on death row. What is your take on that as the chief law officer of the state?
It is unfortunate that the execution is being condemned by Amnesty International and other organizations. The four men executed were convicted several years ago – some of them well over fifteen years after they had exhausted their rights of Appeal in accordance with the Nigerian law. A prosecution for the offence of murder and armed robbery starts from the High Court and if the person is convicted, he has a right of Appeal.
Whether or not he has a Counsel, you must get a Counsel for him. It goes to the Court of Appeal and if that conviction is allowed, it goes to the Supreme Court. After the Supreme Court decision, there is no other court and the punishment for capital offence in Nigeria is death. Capital offence is murder. Another one is armed robbery. So these men had been on death row for well over a decade. Former Governor of the state, Lucky Igbinedion, signed the death warrant of two of them but they were not executed.
The current governor signed death warrant of two and then, three out of the four now went to the Federal High Court to claim that their being on death row for over fifteen years was an inhuman and cruel treatment that every day they wake up, they are not even sure whether they will live beyond that day.
They went to court and immediately they went to court, even after the governor had signed their execution warrant, we immediately advised the prison that they can no longer execute because there is a case in court. I understand that the Federal High Court declined their plea that Monday and it was after that prayer was declined that the prison authorities executed them.
Let me make it clear that the prison authority is a Federal agency; they are not under the control or command of the Edo State government or the Ministry of Justice. I was not aware before they were executed; I was not there. I had cause to call the prison authorities and they confirmed to me that they had been executed.
I am also informed by the prison authorities that one of the prisoners, Chima Ejiofor, had a child from a woman in Edo before he later went to his home and married another woman. He invited the child he had in Edo for Christmas and killed the child and his reason was that he did not want to have a child outside wedlock. I am also told that Osarenmwinda Aigbokhan was convicted of murder.
He killed and dismembered his victim into different parts and buried the different parts at different locations. The man awaiting execution, Thankgod Ebos, was an armed robber who went to the house of a couple, robbed them, raped the wife and pushed a bottle into the private part of the woman until she bled and died. These are the information about their offences.
But why do you think Amnesty International and others are kicking against the execution?
Amnesty says there is a moratorium on execution of people in Nigeria for some time. But I reminded them that a moratorium is not law. On Saturday, a prominent human rights lawyer, Fred Agbaje, said it would be tantamount to executive cowardice for a governor to refuse to sign execution warrant because the punishment for murder in law, like in Edo State section 319, sub Section 1 of our criminal code says if you commit the offence of murder, you shall be sentenced to death. So a court of law in Nigeria does not have the discretion to impose any other punishment other than death.
But the law gives the convict the right of Appeal up to the Apex court. However, when that right of Appeal is exhausted, the governor of a state is under a legal obligation to sign the execution warrant. And if the execution warrant is signed, the prison authorities are under a legal obligation to execute because the sentence of a court of law is not a joke; it is a serious matter and must be executed. So my advice to Amnesty International is that they should direct their advocacy to the national Assembly towards amending our laws. Let the death penalty be expunged from the corpus of our laws.
I, as an individual, am against capital punishment. I believe we can replace that with life imprisonment for capital offenders. But as it is today in Nigeria, it is part of our laws. And I reminded the Amnesty International people that different jurisdictions in the United States have different laws pertaining to death sentence – some states have life imprisonment, some have death sentence like in Texas.
Texas has the death sentence either by lethal injection or electric chair. But death is death. We appreciate that the United Kingdom has abolished the death sentence, and we look forward to a situation where it will be abolished also in Nigeria. But until it is abolished, it is part of our laws and it will be implemented. It is the sad reality.
In Jurisprudence, there is a difference between what is and what ought to be. What is jurisprudential in Nigeria today is that the death sentence is part of our laws and if a man is convicted and has exhausted all his right of Appeal, then a warrant of execution will follow and physical execution is followed by the prison authority.
But three of the prisoners went on Appeal. Why was it not exhausted before they were hanged?
Immediately the Federal High Court gave judgment declining their prayers that Monday, they filed a notice of Appeal which was served in my office at 2:05pm. And having been served on me, the law enjoins me not to take any other action towards the execution. But I explained to those who served me the paper that I don’t control the prison, that they should also ensure that they serve the prison authority because the execution is to be done by the prison authority.
I was served and I am prepared to abide by the law, but I don’t know what happened. Whether they served the prison or they did not serve the prison is for the prison authority to say so. But if they served the prison authority, there is no way the execution could have gone on because they have the right of appeal and then that Appeal must be heard. But if they lose that Appeal, then they will be executed. If they don’t lose, then they will be free men. So I don’t know whether they served the prison authority but I was served and I was prepared to comply.
Why was one of them not executed with the others?
The remaining one, Thankgod Ebos who robbed, raped and inserted a bottle into the victim’s private part, could not be executed that Monday because he was tried and convicted by an Armed Robbery and Fire Arms Tribunal in Kaduna which means it was during the military era, pre-1999. And the methodology for his execution in the judgment was by firing squad.
The others were sentenced to death by normal High Courts and not tribunal by hanging. So the prison officials had the hangman and other instrumentalities for hanging and that was why those ones were executed. So they said they don’t have instrumentality for military firing squad and that was why that person was not executed.
Are you saying that you were not notified when the hang man came?
The prison regulation says a Pastor or an Imam, a medical doctor are the people who are invited to witness the hanging. I was not there.
But do you agree with the agitation to abolish capital punishment?
Talking for myself as Henry Idahagbon, I do not believe in capital punishment. The purpose of punishment in jurisprudence is as a deterrent and evidence has clearly shown that capital punishment has not deterred people from committing crimes. Instead it has even hardened people and made the criminals ruthless because they know that if they are caught they will be killed. So I will be very happy to join the lobby of the advocacy to the National Assembly for the abolition of capital punishment from our laws in this country.