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Activists Urge Reform of Nigerian Prison System

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite promises last week by this country’s new military leader to promote democracy and respect civil liberties, many local and foreign human rights advocates say his failure to repeal laws that allow the violation of individual rights will undercut pledges to bring true justice to Nigeria’s penal system.

Nor are activists confident that the reforms announced by Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar last Monday will lead to substantial improvement in Nigeria’s prisons, notorious for their harsh and inhumane conditions.

“It is a welcome step for those individuals who have walked out of jail . . . people who should not have been there in the first place,” said Adotei Akwei, director of the advocacy program for Africa in the Washington office of Amnesty International. “However, the releases so far seem to have been selective and based more on political expediency.”

Abubakar--who came to power after Nigeria’s previous leader, Gen. Sani Abacha, died of a heart attack last month--announced the release of all political detainees and dropped charges against political offenders as part of a plan to return power to a democratically elected civilian government by May 29.

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But Abubakar did not abolish many of the undemocratic decrees used by Abacha and previous military leaders to jail those who opposed them. Chief among those decrees is a law allowing a person to be detained “for security reasons,” with no questions asked and often no charges filed.

“The first nine [detainees] were released [in June] on humanitarian grounds, not in repudiation of the bogus charges they went to jail under,” Akwei said. “There are possibly hundreds who are still in jail held on the same charges.”

And while scores of prisoners were released after Abubakar’s announcement last week, others reportedly remain behind bars.

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According to the Lagos-based Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, or CDHR, there are scores of political activists who have disappeared and may be dead or imprisoned without the knowledge of families or friends. Among those known to still be in custody at the end of last week were almost three dozen military figures charged with plotting coups against past governments and 19 members of the minority Ogoni ethnic group held for protesting environmental abuses.

In several cases, amnesty was granted to prisoners but ignored by officials citing national security concerns.

“A regime that does not see fit to release people who have been accused of coups in two previous military regimes, despite the fact that amnesty has been extended, is a regime to worry about,” CDHR Secretary Shina Loremikan said.

Activists also are eager to see the cleanup of Nigerian prisons and detention centers, which many here refer to as death camps.

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“If you are detained in a Nigerian prison or by the State Security Service and you come out alive, you are merely lucky,” said Femi Aborisade, a political activist jailed five times since 1988, the longest period for 10 months in 1996. “The aim is to get rid of you.”

Popular politician Moshood Abiola spent four years in detention after claiming the presidency on the basis of annulled 1993 elections he was widely thought to have won. He died of a heart attack this month while still in custody.

His death reminded many former political inmates of their own personal traumas.

“You feel angry; you have mood swings,” recalled Olisa Agbakoba, a human rights lawyer and leader of United Action for Democracy, who was jailed on various political charges dozens of times under past military regimes, most recently for two months this year. “The jail smells [of] death, so you associate yourself with human despair.”

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Agbakoba, who in June was among the first nine political prisoners released by Abubakar, recounted how he was last held in solitary confinement in a tiny cell, sandwiched between two overflowing latrine houses and open sewers. In close vicinity was an asylum, from which he could hear the constant agonizing screams of mentally deranged detainees.

The cell--in a prison in the southern town of Enugu--had six high windows that were always locked and a light that was never switched off. A latrine was placed near a half-door, so that when he squatted to use the toilet, the warden could see his head and legs.

“It’s so humiliating,” said Agbakoba, who was afraid of being bitten by snakes or the huge rats he often saw fighting for food on the beams above his head. “I was like an animal in a zoo.”

Nigerian human rights activists, who collect accounts of former detainees, say prisoners suffer a variety of ailments, including dysentery, typhoid, food poisoning, scabies and malaria. Personal doctors are rarely allowed to examine inmates, ex-prisoners say.

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Agbakoba recalled how inmates would have to climb into the sewer toilets to dig out the excrement. It would then be dumped into the nearby vegetable gardens, which produced food for the prisoners.

In smuggled-out memoirs, sometimes written on toilet paper, Abiola complained of bouts of hunger. Friends and relatives, who received his scribblings, said he also suffered several attacks of malaria.

“Solitary confinement is meant to humiliate [into] submission, to dehumanize to the stage where a person might beg for his life,” said Olusegun Mayegun, 30, assistant general secretary for the Campaign for Democracy, a civil liberties group, who was detained 22 times between 1985 and last month.


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