By Henry Ojelu
Today October 10 is World Day against the Death Penalty. A day set aside every year to globally advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. The theme for this year is Children, Unseen Victims. The aim is to raise awareness on the rights of children whose parents have been sentenced to death or executed.
Under Nigerian law a judge is required to sentence to death any person found guilty of a capital offence: ‘The sentence of the court upon you is that you be hanged by the neck until you be dead and may the lord have mercy on your soul’. While a judge is mandatorily required to pronounce this on conviction in a capital offense, the law requires the Governor acting under the recommendation of the Advisory Council on the Prerogative of Mercy to order execution or commutation to life imprisonment or some other prison term or pardon.
In practice, since May 29, 1999, most state governors have failed, refused or neglected to sign warrant of execution. The result is that death sentences are handed down by the courts and are not carried out.
In its 2018 global report on death sentences and executions, Amnesty International recorded that in Nigeria; at least 19,336 people were on death row. Many of these people have children connected to them either as daughters, sons, nephews, nieces etc. The death penalty does not only affect the person who is sentenced, members of the sentenced person are also collateral victims.
The children of parents sentenced to death or executed are often referred to as the ‘invisible’ or ‘forgotten’ victims of the death penalty, whose experiences are mostly overlooked and whose rights are rarely considered in criminal justice processes. When a parent is sentenced to death, the sentence has profound impacts on their children.
No one has studied how the execution of an immediate family member impacts children and statistics are difficult to find. Nonetheless, many studies recognize that children of people sentenced to death often come from poor families and/or are from minority groups. As they are almost absent in statistics, these children are more likely exposed to abuses and victims of violations of their rights.
This perhaps informed the term of this year’s Death Penalty Day.
Speaking on this crucial but often neglected consequence of death penalty, two leading civil society organisations, Human Rights Law Services, HURILAWS and Legal Defence and Assistance Project LEDAP, called for urgent attention to the negative impact of the death penalty on children.
In a joint statement, the two organisations hightlighted the impact of death peanlty on children and call on Federal and State legislators and executives in Nigeria to put in place moretarium on the death penalty.
The statement was jointly signed by Collins Okeke for HURILAWS and Pamela Okoroigwe for LEDAP. Emphasising the need for re-evaluate the impact of death penalty on children, the two organisation said: ” Government must conduct a child rights impact evaluation of the actual impact of the implementation of current legislation and policies in their State related to the death penalty, to assess the impact on children of the parental death penalty.
“We urge all relevant authorities to consider all aspects of children’s rights in this evaluation, including the right to be free from inhuman treatment, and the rights to health, education, and an adequate standard of living. There must be a thorough communication with children to facilitate their meaningful participation in this process, and to identify their best interests, using child-friendly procedural safeguards.
“Our system must also develop transparent and objective processes for legislative decisions made concerning the death penalty to ensure full consideration and respect of the human rights of children.
“Government must enact legislation that requires in law the detailed procedural steps for conducting a best interests of the child assessment as set out in the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child’s General Comment on the best interests of the child, and include a provision explicitly requiring that such an assessment be conducted before any sentencing decision is made that impacts a child. Authorities must also ensure that all the procedural requirements set out in this legislation are disseminated to both prosecutors and sentencing authorities.
“We also advocate an enact into legislation the requirement that all state actors whose actions impact the children of parents sentenced to death or executed be educated about the impact of the parental death penalty on children, and the international legal standards that protect the child’s best interests. There should also be a legislation that those who shall receive such education include judges and law clerks, prison and death row guards, courtroom and other administrative staff, and any medical or social service personnel who may be called upon in making a sentencing decision.
Speaking on the need to totally abolished death penalty in Nigeria’s legal system, Joseph Otteh, Executive Director, Access to Justice insisted that Nigeria must join the campaign by the rest of the world to stop death penalty.
He said: “The death penalty is reviled by a broad spectrum of the international community and justifiably so. It has been the subject of numerous regional and international standard-setting Statements imploring governments to disavow its continued use in national legal systems. And many governments are listening and abstaining from its use. But among countries that have not formally abolished the death penalty, there will always remain a risk that sooner or later, the prospect of the death sentence would be used as a political weapon of repression, particular among tyrannical goverments dressed in whatever garb they appear in.
“Like wolves in sheep clothing, we have seen, in Africa, how governments charge opposition activists with allegations of treason or treasonable conduct and use every means they can to neutralize those figures. We see governments charge those who stand up to power with homicide or even terrorism both of which are punishable with the death sentence in order to silence them and intimidate their followership.. This is why we must join the international campaign to abolish the Death penalty. It is a sentence that is weak, unreliable or pliable justice systems that can corruptly be put to very illicit uses. And the damage is irreparable.”
On his part, Executive Director, Cadrell Advocacy Centre, EvansUfeli said the judicial authority must pay more attention to the plight of children in deciding the fate of people facing capital offences. He also pointed out that death sentence has not served the purpose of stopping crime.
He said: As we mark the world’s day against death penalty I employ the relevant authorities to look into the plight of children who upon the execution of their parents on account of death sentence are left to suffer untold hardship due to no fault of theirs.
“Cadrell Advocacy Centre hereby lend her voice and call once again for the abolishment of death sentence all over the world. Human life is sacred and taking man’s life by way of punishment does not enhance justice but undermines society and weakens the moral code of existentialism. The world for the sake of children, should do away with death sentence to promote a better society that will guarantee equity and justice. ‘
Human Rights Lawyer, Yemi Omodele also made case for the protection of the right of children. He however maintained that death penalty as a means of punishment for capital offences should remain .“In criminal jurisprudence, death sentence is recognized internationally. However, there has been global outcry that death sentence be abrogated. On this issue there two schools of thought one is of the view that death sentence be expunged from our criminal law systems as the punishment is an old fashion, the second school is of the stand that it should be part of our criminal law on the basis that deterrent is scare away persons who intends involving in such heinous crimes. Armed robbery, kidnapping, murder, treasonable offences attract death sentence upon. Success of the charges. Societally, persons who commits, capital offences are to be kept off the society. Death sentence should be left as part of law. But, to be on the safe side it is advised that the procedure of trying defendants be developed and upgraded. There should be more judges appointed in the States to handle capital offences case rather making the society porous with crimes.”