Nigeria: Criminal justice system is a 'conveyor belt of injustice' says Amnesty

Prisons fail Nigerian people; most inmates not convicted of any crime

Amnesty International has today released a report that exposes the appalling state of Nigeria’s prison system and how the criminal justice system is utterly failing the people of that country.

Describing the criminal justice system as ‘conveyor belt of injustice, from beginning to end’, Amnesty International reveals how:
- At least 65 per cent of Nigeria’s inmates have never been convicted of any crime, with some awaiting trial for up to ten years;
- Most in Nigerian prisons are too poor to afford a lawyer – with only one in seven awaiting trial having access to private legal representation – with only 91 legal aid lawyers working in the country;
- How appalling prison conditions, including severe overcrowding, are seriously damaging the mental and physical health of thousands.

Torture by police is also routine and widespread, with “confessions” extracted by torture often used as evidence in trials.

Aster van Kregten, Amnesty International’s researcher on Nigeria said:
“The problems in Nigerian’s criminal justice system – especially its prisons – are so blatant and egregious that the Nigerian government has had no choice but to recognise them – and has pledged many times that it will reform the system.

“However, the reality is that those in prison stand little chance of their rights being respected. Those without money stand even less chance. Some could end up spending the rest of their lives behind bars in appalling conditions without ever having been convicted of a crime -- sometimes simply due to their case files having been lost by the police.”

The report also reveals how all too often, people not suspected of committing any crime are imprisoned along with convicted criminals.

Some were arrested in place of a family member the police could not locate; others suffer from mental illness and were brought to prison by families unable or unwilling to take care of them. Most have no lawyer to advocate on their behalf.

Aster van Kregten continued:
“Many inmates awaiting trial are effectively presumed guilty – despite the fact that there is little evidence of their involvement in the crime of which they are accused.”

In one such case, Bassy, a 35-year-old woman with mental illness, was brought to prison by her brother, who said the family could no longer cope with her. Prison authorities classified Bassy as a ‘civil lunatic’. Accused of no crime and never brought before a judge, Bassy spent almost three years in prison, sleeping on the floor in a cell with 11 Women's rights's rightss rights's rights's rights's rights. After the intervention of PRAWA, a Nigerian non-governmental organisation dealing with the incarceration of mentally ill prisoners, Bassy was finally transferred to a hospital, where she is now receiving treatment.

Aster van Kregten said:
“When a state arrests or imprisons someone solely because they are a relative of a suspect or because they suffer from mental illness, they are violating that persons right not to be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention – a right guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Cases take so long to get to court that once an inmate has been tried and convicted, they are reluctant to launch an appeal. Even those claiming innocence say they risk staying in prison longer waiting for their appeal to be heard than if they simply serve their sentence.

Amnesty International also highlighted the plight of prison staff, who work long and stressful hours for low wages that are often paid late. Poor pay often leads to petty extortion of prisoners, and staff shortages create security risks for both staff and inmates. Inmates are often relied on to govern themselves and have taken on disciplinary functions, including meting out corporal punishment, close confinement and diet restrictions – all of which do not comply with international standards.

Aster van Kregten said:
“The Nigerian government is simply not complying with its national and international obligations when it comes to the criminal justice system in Nigeria and must begin to do so seriously and urgently. The conditions we saw and the stories we heard from inmates are a national scandal.”

Background information
The Nigerian government has, on numerous occasions, stated its willingness to reform the criminal justice system, acknowledging its role in creating a situation of prolonged detention and overcrowding. Despite many presidential commissions and committees recommending reform, the recommendations have not been implemented. Instead, the government has set up new committees and commissions to study, review and harmonise the previous recommendations.

View latest press releases