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Amnesty International Report 1996 - Nigeria

Publisher Amnesty International
Publication Date 1 January 1996
Cite as Amnesty International, Amnesty International Report 1996 - Nigeria, 1 January 1996, available at: [accessed 26 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Nine people, including at least two prisoners of conscience, were executed after an unfair and politically motivated trial. More than 40 people, many of them prisoners of conscience, were sentenced to death or to prison terms after a secret and unfair trial; the death sentences were later commuted. Scores of suspected opponents of the government were detained during the year, including human rights activists, pro-democracy activists, journalists and members of the Ogoni ethnic group. Several prisoners of conscience arrested in previous years remained imprisoned. Torture and ill-treatment of political and other detainees were widespread; one died in August, apparently from harsh conditions and medical neglect. At least 95 people were executed, most after trials before special tribunals which fell short of international fair trial standards.

There was little progress towards restoring democratic, constitutional government. A National Constitutional Conference, set up in 1994 to draft a new constitution, presented its recommendations in August. It withdrew a recommendation that the military government cede power to civilians by January 1996 after a leading opposition delegate was arrested and accused of plotting a coup. In October Head of State General Sani Abacha, Chairman of the military Provisional Ruling Council, announced a three-year transition to civilian rule which was widely criticized as too protracted.

Although the ban on political parties was lifted in June, members of opposition parties still faced harassment and arrest. Banning orders on three newspaper groups were removed but journalists were still detained for criticizing the government. The government continued to flout court rulings ordering it to uphold constitutional rights.

In November the Commonwealth, representing 53 states, suspended Nigeria's membership in protest at nine political executions carried out despite last-minute appeals from Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in New Zealand. The UN General Assembly adopted a resolution condemning the executions and expressed deep concern about other human rights violations in Nigeria. During December the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights held an extraordinary session to consider the human rights situation in Nigeria.

Nine people were executed on 10 November in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, southeast Nigeria, including at least two prisoners of conscience – Ken Saro-Wiwa, a writer and President of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), and Dr Barinem Kiobel, a former state commissioner (minister). The nine had been convicted on 30 and 31 October following two simultaneous murder trials of 15 defendants before the Civil Disturbances Special Tribunal in connection with the mob killing of four Ogoni leaders in May 1994 (see Amnesty International Report 1995).

The trials, which fell short of international fair trial standards, were aimed at crushing MOSOP's campaign against environmental damage by oil companies and for increased autonomy for the Ogoni ethnic group. The Civil Disturbances Special Tribunal, appointed by the military government specifically to try these cases, widened the definition of murder, so that any senior member of MOSOP deemed to have contributed to a civil disturbance could be convicted of murder. This was used to convict Ken Saro-Wiwa and others considered to be supporters of MOSOP, despite the lack of evidence of their involvement in the murders. The burden of proof was reversed so that defendants without alibis were found to have been present. The Tribunal allows no right of appeal. The defence team, headed by Nigeria's leading civil rights lawyers, withdrew in protest at the court's bias.

In the first trial, which began in February, Ken Saro-Wiwa and four others arrested in 1994 were accused of murder, which carries a mandatory death sentence. A further trial of 10 defendants, before the same tribunal and based on the same evidence, started in March. One defendant was discharged in September and five others, including Ledum Mitee, Vice President of MOSOP, were acquitted and released in October.

The defendants appeared to have been detained illegally for at least eight months before the first five were charged in February. They were held incommunicado in military custody in harsh and insanitary conditions and denied adequate food, water and medical care. Two defence lawyers, Chief Gani Fawehinmi and Femi Falana, were reportedly assaulted by soldiers at the entrance to the court. Ken Saro-Wiwa's relatives were also reported to have been hit by soldiers.

A further 19 Ogoni prisoners, who may be prisoners of conscience, were charged with murder on the basis of the same evidence in September. Sixteen had been detained without charge since mid-1994; three were arrested in October 1995. In December, amid fears that they too could be unfairly tried and executed, the Federal High Court in Lagos ordered that the trial be postponed until February 1996 so that it could rule on the constitutionality of the Civil Disturbances Special Tribunal.

More than 40 civilians and armed forces officers, many of them prisoners of conscience, were convicted after secret and grossly unfair trials between June and August. They were charged with treason and related offences in connection with an alleged coup plot in March, but the real reason for their arrest appeared to be their pro-democracy activities. The trials were held in camera before a Special Military Tribunal headed by a member of the government sitting with six other armed forces officers appointed by the government. The Tribunal denied all crucial defence rights, including the defendants' rights to see details of the charges against them, to be defended by a lawyer of their choice, to be able to prepare their defence properly, to be tried in open court, to address the Tribunal in their own defence and to appeal against the Tribunal's decisions. In July the government announced, without further details, that 40 defendants had been convicted by the Tribunal. About 14 had apparently been sentenced to death. There were further arrests and secret trials of journalists and human rights activists for publishing information about the lack of evidence against the defendants and their unfair trials. Following worldwide appeals, General Abacha announced in October that the convictions had been confirmed but that the death sentences had been commuted to imprisonment for life or 15 years. The sentences of other defendants were also reduced.

Among those convicted were former Head of State retired General Olusegun Obasanjo, sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment (commuted from life), and his former deputy, retired Major-General Shehu Musa Yar'Adua, sentenced to life imprisonment (commuted from death). Both were believed to have been convicted because of their criticism of the military government. They were prisoners of conscience.

Other prisoners of conscience included human rights activists, journalists and friends and family of the military defendants, who had exposed the injustices of the initial trials before the Tribunal. They were convicted of being accessories to treason and were sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment (commuted from life). They included Dr Beko Ransome-Kuti and Shehu Sani, Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the Campaign for Democracy (CD), a non-governmental organization. Shehu Sani was initially sentenced to seven years' imprisonment for "managing an illegal organization" but was retried after he smuggled out a letter describing his unfair trial. Dr Ransome-Kuti was convicted for distributing information about the lack of evidence against one of the military defendants who had been sentenced to death. Chris Anyanwu, the woman editor-in-chief of The Sunday Magazine, Kunle Ajibade, editor of The News, and two other journalists were convicted for publishing information about the lack of evidence of any coup plot or because they refused to implicate other journalists in the alleged coup plot. Rebecca Onyabi Ikpe, the sister-in-law of defendant Colonel R. S. B. Bello-Fadile, and his defence lawyer, Navy Commander L.M.O. Fabiyi, were convicted for allegedly passing copies of his defence submission to others.

Scores of suspected opponents of the government were detained during the year under the State Security (Detention of Persons) Decree, No. 2 of 1984, which provides for the indefinite incommunicado detention without charge or trial of anyone suspected of threatening the security or the economy of the state and which specifically prohibits the courts from challenging such detentions. They included human rights and pro-democracy activists, journalists and members of the Ogoni ethnic group.

Prisoners of conscience arrested during 1995 and still held without charge or trial at the end of the year included Sylvester Odion-Akhaine, the General Secretary of the CD, who was detained in January, and Dr Olatunji Abayomi, Chair of Human Rights Africa, Abdul Oroh, Executive Director of the Civil Liberties Organization, and Chima Ubani, General Secretary of the Democratic Alternative, who were detained in July.

Dozens of journalists were briefly detained, most without charge or trial, after publishing articles critical of the government. Political meetings were disrupted and participants and organizers arrested. Chief Gani Fawehinmi, a prominent human rights lawyer, was detained for two weeks in June, after declaring that his opposition National Conscience Party would defy restrictions on political activity, and again in September after he addressed a rally. Chief Michael Ajasin, the 87-year-old leader of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), a pro-democracy group of former political leaders, and about 50 other people were briefly detained after a private meeting in his home in June.

There were further detentions without charge or trial of members of the Ogoni community. Women supporters of MOSOP were arrested, apparently for talking to foreign human rights investigators in July. Lekue Lah-Loolo, Assistant General Secretary of MOSOP, and three others were detained for several weeks in August.

Among the prisoners of conscience arrested in previous years who were held throughout the year was Chief Moshood K.O. Abiola. Generally acknowledged as the winner of annulled presidential elections in 1993, he was arrested on treason charges in June 1994 (see Amnesty International Report 1995). He was denied visits from relatives, and his doctor, Ore Falomo, was briefly detained in April, apparently because he had made public Moshood Abiola's deteriorating health and harsh conditions of detention. Charges of treason against some leading NADECO members were withdrawn in February and others released on bail on treason charges in 1994 were not tried.

Trade union leaders and other pro-democracy activists arrested in 1994 also remained in detention without charge or trial throughout 1995 (see Amnesty International Report 1995).

Major-General Zamani Lekwot and other members of the Kataf ethnic group sentenced to death for murder in early 1993 after unfair trials by a Civil Disturbances Special Tribunal (see Amnesty International Reports 1993 and 1994) were unconditionally released in September. Their death sentences had been commuted in August 1993.

Torture and ill-treatment of political prisoners were widespread and at least one detainee died as a result. Defendants in political trials were held incommunicado, with no safeguards against torture or ill-treatment. The special courts which tried them failed to conduct impartial investigations into allegations that statements were made under coercion, and admitted such statements as evidence. Clement Tusima, a member of the Ogoni community held without charge since May 1994, died in August after months of illness and medical neglect in detention; no action was taken to bring those responsible to justice. Baribor Bera, executed in November following conviction by the Civil Disturbances Special Tribunal, showed the Tribunal scars from beatings received at the Kpor detention centre in Ogoniland. He said he was stripped naked, tied to a pillar, flogged with a horsewhip and forced to swallow teeth knocked out by beatings.

Several of the defendants accused of involvement in the alleged March coup plot were reportedly tortured or ill-treated during interrogation in order to obtain incriminating statements. A statement reportedly used in evidence against Generals Obasanjo and Yar'Adua was refuted before the Special Military Tribunal on the grounds that it was made under coercion.

Torture and ill-treatment of criminal suspects were also widespread. In October the High Court in Ondo State sentenced two policemen to death following their conviction on charges of torturing and killing a detainee; their appeals were believed to be still pending at the end of the year.

The widespread use of the death penalty continued. At least 95 executions and 46 death sentences were reported in 1995. Most had been imposed by Robbery and Firearms Tribunals, special courts outside the normal judicial system which cannot guarantee fair trials and allow no right of appeal. In July, 43 prisoners convicted of armed robbery were publicly executed by firing-squad in Lagos. One of the victims was reportedly shot 10 times before he died. Another, Mohammed Saleh, told reporters before he died that he had been held under sentence of death since 1979. There were further executions in Adamawa, Akwa Ibom, Delta and Lagos states.

Amnesty International appealed to the authorities throughout the year to release prisoners of conscience, to ensure fair trials for all political prisoners, to end torture and ill-treatment and to stop all executions. In September it published a report, Nigeria: The Ogoni trials and detentions, describing the detention, ill-treatment and unfair political trials of members of the Ogoni community. In October it published Nigeria: A travesty of justice – secret treason trials and other concerns, which detailed the repression of pro-democracy activists and other critics of the government.

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