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Time to create awareness, end impunity by criminalising torture

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Deji Ajare


For ages, the Police have been notorious in employing torture against citizens. Nigeria is a country where security agencies harass detainees and suspects, and in most cases employ violence to extract confession statements from those suspects. This tradition has continued among all the security agencies even to the present day.

Interestingly, the act of torture has been outlawed in Nigeria. The legal document, which outlawed torture is titled, The Anti-Torture Act 2017. It was passed by the 8th National Assembly and signed into law by President Muhammadu Buhari on December 29, 2017. The law outright rules out torture by state actors, whether the victim is guilty of a crime or not? It seems like many state actors and citizens are not aware of this law.

Employing torture is not a Nigerian phenomenon alone. It is a problem all over the world. Last year witnessed the greatest uproar in the world, over issues of torture. The major cases happened in America with the #Blacklivesmatter campaign, after Mr. George Floyd died being handcuffed and pinned to the ground by an officer’s knee in United States and in Nigeria with the #EndSars protests.

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The EndSars protest was amplified by a people who got tired of being afraid and going through any form of torture at the sight of armed officials. The campaigners called for an end to police brutality in the country.
George’s death came in the wake of series of acts of racist violence against Black Americans that illustrates astounding levels of violence and discrimination in the U.S.

Torture, is an international crime, categorised under crimes against humanity, meaning that the International Criminal Court (ICC) has jurisdiction to try cases of torture under the law.

The Anti Torture Act, enacted by the National Assembly, states that the government shall ensure the rights of all persons, including suspects, detainees and prisoners are respected at all times and that no person placed under investigation or held in custody of any person in authority shall be subjected to physical harm, force, violence, threat or intimidation or any act that impairs his free will; and fully adhere to the principles and standards on the absolute condemnation and prohibition of torture set by the Constitution of Nigeria and various international instruments to, which Nigeria is a state party.

According to the Act, torture is deemed committed when an act by which pain or whether physical or mental, is inflicted on a person to obtain information or a confession from him or a third person, punish him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of committing, intimidate or ‘coerce him or a third person for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

Country Director, Avocats Sans Frontières France (ASF), Angela Uwandu, said a training conducted by ASF for security agencies in various states in Nigeria revealed that there is lack of awareness of the existence of the Anti Torture Act amongst security personnel. “This lack of awareness is a major contributory factor for non-implementation of the Act. The other factor would be the delay in the issuance of the implementation guideline by the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF).

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“You would recall that a section of the Act mandates the AGF to produce the guideline for implementation of the Act and also to oversee its implementation,” she said.

She therefore urged the AGF to issue the guidelines so that prosecutors can commence implementation of the Act. She also called on victims of torture to report their violators to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), who in turn would refer to the Police for investigation and prosecution of such persons under the Act.

“What is the use of having a legislation criminalising torture without prosecuting officers found culpable for the act under that law?” Uwandu asked.

She explained that there is a huge lack of awareness among security agencies that the law directly targets. This, she said, is not limited to security agencies, but the civil populace is unaware of the legislation also. According to her, there is need to create more awareness, so people know they have a right to report cases of torture and should expect that an investigation will be carried out with prosecution of the officers involved under the Act.

She reiterated that not withstanding the strong international legal and political frame work in place to fight torture, hundreds of victims are subject to torture daily whether in prison, police stations or detention centres in public or secret.

She noted that the reason torture is still prevalent in the Nigerian system is as a result of lack of accountability, adding: “This means that we have torture perpetrated regularly and no one is held accountable for it. Unless perpetrators are being persecuted, we would continue to have a culture of impunity.”

She listed unduly prolonged pretrial detention as another reason, stating that the statistics of Nigerian prisons show that only about 30 per cent of detainees in the custodial centres have been convicted for the crimes for which they were arrested. About 70 per cent are still awaiting trial, she pointed out.

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“For instance, we have had to deal with situations of people awaiting trial for eight years and above. This creates an avenue where human right violations, including torture could be perpetrated against the detainee; we argue that the earliest point that a lawyer can intervene, in cases on human rights violation would be reduced to the barest minimum,” she argued.

According to her, a lot of victims who have been subjected to severe pain, physical or mental torture don’t know who to go to and how to seek redress, because the Constitution allows for redress through the human rights enforcement mechanism. A lot of victims, she said, are unable to afford the service of the lawyer. “Here we are talking about time and affordability of resources to be able to engage the lawyer,” she stated.

According to Uwandu, in Nigeria, there are some mechanisms in place, in terms of legislation that if implemented can help reduce the incidence of torture. She noted that Nigeria is among countries that have legal framework that criminalises torture, but regretted that unfortunately, it has not been implemented.

Partner, Olasupo Shonibare, Ms. Ayo Obe, also decried torture and stated that it is illegal. “The way the United States was dressing up the act of water boarding and saying it was an enhanced interrogation techniques shouldn’t be supported. This is because we have now started to be a little bit elastic about the meaning of the word torture. Some actions of torture don’t leave a physical mark, but are seen as torture. Because democratic governments in Britain or the U.S. are doing them, it becomes accepted.

She emphasised the need to stop the slide of elasticity in the definition of torture. “Torture is Torture. If you don’t want it done to you and you know it would leave a mental scar and designed to force you to do or say what you wouldn’t on a normal day, then we should recognise it as torture. Our constitution talks about inhuman and degrading treatment. It is illegal under the African charter and international charter,” she reiterated.

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Project Director, Access to Justice, Deji Ajare, regretted that there is substantial non-compliance with the provisions of the Act. He agreed that a lot of security officials are not aware of the existence of the law against torture. “Indeed it is clear that quite a lot of them are not even aware of the existence of the Act. Those who do, do not know the contents,” he added.

He suggested that the top hierarchy of the law enforcement Agencies must commit themselves to the enforcement of the Act and direct their men to do so, adding that those who perpetrate torture must be held accountable for their actions, as failure to do so is what is responsible for the impunity currently witnessed in Nigeria.

According to Ajare, there should be continued training and retraining for officers on the Act, as well as on alternative measures for investigations of crimes. He stressed the need to create more awareness about the Act amongst the citizenry and to guide them to demand for the full implementation of the Act.

“It is only when there is a collective citizen demand that the government actors will realise that there is no going back on the respect for rights of citizens against any form of torture,” he emphasised.

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