A recent news story said “at least 119 Nigerians are on death row in Malaysia over drugs related offences”. Its source is United States-based Amnesty International. The human rights organisation disclosed this in a report – “Fatally flawed: Why Malaysia must abolish the death penalty.” It said 1,281 persons were on death row in the Asian country, Nigerians accounting for about 21% of that total. AI said the inmates were being kept in 26 detention facilities across the country. A significant 73 percent of all those under sentence of death have been convicted of drug trafficking, which carries the death sentence.
AI said it kicked against the death sentence because those awaiting the hangman’s noose were not given a fair trial as part of customary international law. “In researching this report, (we have) found numerous violations of the right to a fair trial at different points of the criminal justice process that leave defendants vulnerable to the imposition of the death penalty,” it said. “Restrictions on access to legal counsel remains a critical defect of Malaysia’s judicial system. Under the Federal Constitution of Malaysia, detainees are supposed to be able to consult and be defended by the legal practitioner of their choice as soon as possible after arrest.
“However, despite these programmes, lawyers and other representatives of prisoners on death row have told Amnesty International that it has been a common experience for those arrested for offences that could result in the death penalty, and who cannot hire a lawyer independently, not to receive legal assistance at the time of arrest or during their time under police remand, before charges are brought. Further, because of how legal aid is structured, no legal representatives are assigned to a case until the trial is due to start, leaving defendants without legal assistance during interrogation and for prolonged periods. Our research found a pattern of unfair trials and secretive hangings that itself spoke volumes. From allegations of torture and other ill-treatment to an opaque pardons process, it’s clear the death penalty is a stain on Malaysia’s criminal justice system.”
The moralists among us would argue for the Nigerians affected to stew in their own juice. After all, they got their just dessert. It would be true of those who knowingly trafficked illicit drugs and were caught by the long arm of Malaysian law, warts and all. But what of those who were innocent but weren’t given any chance to prove their innocence? Certainly, they don’t deserve to die!
For the latter group, there are available two options. One, a moratorium on executions has been in place since October 2018 as the government mulls law reform. A special task force led by immediate past chief justice Richard Malanjum has been studying alternative penalties for laws carrying mandatory capital punishment. The country’s parliament is due to vote on a bill proposing abolition of the death penalty as early as 2020.
The second is for the Nigerian government to go public with a robust case for a stay of execution. This requires a direct conversation between President Muhammadu Buhari and his Malaysian counterpart. The Indian and Australian governments used this strategy in 2018 to save their nationals on death row for drugs related crimes in Indonesia. On the other hand, a Nigerian death row inmate was executed because our government failed to make a strong enough case for his release, according to his lawyer. While we cannot count too much on the possibility of the abolition of the death penalty in Malaysia as it may not happen, we suggest that talks between that country and Nigeria at the highest governmental level may help stave off death for our innocent nationals in that country.