After nine years on death row in Nigeria’s Enugu prison, Arthur Juda Angel’s
death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He was released five years
later in 2000, after human rights activists who had been visiting him in
prison appealed directly to the State Governor to grant a pardon.
Arthur awaited trial for more than two years before being sentenced to death
for murder in 1986. He was transferred to the notorious death row in Enugu
prison, southern Nigeria. There, he waited in a windowless, 2 x 2.5m cell
for his turn to be executed. He shared that space – its cardboard box beds
and single bucket toilet – with as many as 13 other death row inmates.
While on death row, Arthur witnessed numerous mass executions by firing
squad or hanging. Groups of 25-50 people were executed on a monthly –
sometimes weekly – basis especially under former military ruler General
Ibrahim Babangida. Arthur also witnessed torture and other cruel, inhuman
and degrading treatment on a regular basis. "It was like hell. We were
undergoing both mental and physical torture," he says. He believes he was
spared from such treatment because his family often visited him. Some of
those who were not so lucky died as a result of their injuries. Others died
from heart attacks or infectious diseases which were rampant in the prison.
Despite his time on death row, Arthur does not feel resentment or want
revenge. "Religion and painting were part of my healing process and they
have changed my life," he says. According to Arthur, Nigeria should abolish
the death penalty. He feels that Nigeria has lost a lot of skilful people
due to the government’s death penalty policies; people who could have
contributed to society but who were executed instead after sitting for years
on death row.
Arthur is one of many thousands of Nigerians whose lives have been
threatened by the death penalty. He was lucky to be spared when scores have
been executed over the years, mostly during the former military regimes.
Despite a civilian government which came into power in 1999 under President
Olusegun Obasanjo, the death penalty is still on the statute books, and is
mandatory for certain criminal offences under new Sharia penal legislation
introduced in 12 northern states since 1999.
There are currently over 400 death row prisoners in Nigeria, according to
the latest government statistics. A national debate conducted in 2003 and
2004 highlighted how the population is divided over the issue. The
abolitionists claimed that the justice system cannot deliver justice while
the retentionists claim that the death penalty deters crime and that it is
part of religious-based legal systems.
In July 2005, the National Political Reform Conference subcommittee recommended in its final report that "capital punishment is reserved to those young persons found to have been engaged in heinous offences such as armed robbery and cultism".