Monday, May 25, 2009

Kidnappers and the death penalty

THE recourse by some states to the death penalty as the appropriate punishment for kidnappers appears to be understandable at first blush, bearing in mind the atrocious and traumatic nature of the criminal act. Kidnapping has suddenly become a favourite pastime of many criminally minded Nigerians, mainly because of its potential to yield easy returns. Relatives of kidnap victims as well as organs of the state will naturally do anything to secure the release of their loved ones.

But the spate of laws being passed in some states of the federation stipulating capital punishment for kidnappers calls for caution. The death penalty may not serve any purpose. Since kidnapping became the preferred option firstly of militants in the Niger Delta, and lately of common criminals who abduct people for money, some of the states affected have considered drastic measures to combat the scourge. At least two states have proposed the death penalty, and the proposals may soon become laws. In Akwa Ibom State, the House of Assembly has passed the bill, with the governor, Chief Godswill Obot Akpabio expressing his readiness to grant his assent. He has described kidnapping as a serious threat to lives and property as well as the economic and socio-political development of society.

We cannot agree more that kidnapping is indeed a sinister phenomenon. Often, it covers all the elements of armed robbery and more, including murder, assault and the deprivation of victims who consequently suffer huge trauma. Akpabio argues that the condition in Europe, where the death sentence has been abolished, is different from that of Nigeria.

This argument cannot easily be faulted, except that if Europe discovered after 400 years that it had made a mistake in adopting capital punishment there is no reason for Nigeria to wait 400 years before adopting a more acceptable position. Akwa Ibom's decision to punish kidnappers by death is intended to check the menace of kidnapping, militancy and terrorism in the region. Similarly, a bill prescribing death for kidnappers, already passed by the Imo State House of Assembly, is awaiting the signature of Governor Ikedi Ohakim. Amnesty International is urging the governor not to sign the Bill, because death penalty is anachronistic.

Clearly, the attempt by some state governments to prescribe the capital punishment for kidnapping in their jurisdictions is an expression of the society's revulsion to a nagging problem that is fast becoming endemic. The underlying assumption is that a drastic problem requires a drastic solution.

However, a number of countries worldwide have reportedly abolished the death penalty in law or practice. In the last 10 years, about three countries have on the average abolished it yearly. Yet, more than 60 per cent of the world's population lives in countries that support the punishment in varying degrees. The four most populous countries in the world - China, India, the United States and Indonesia - apply the death penalty. In Europe, Article 2 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union prohibits the practice, while the United Nations has, at different times, passed draft resolutions urging nations to abolish the practice.

By far, the most potent argument against capital punishment is its potential to result in a miscarriage of justice, evident in the wrongful execution of innocent persons. In the U.S., newly available DNA evidence has led to the exoneration of more than 15 death row inmates since 1992. But DNA evidence is only available and applicable in a fraction of cases.

It is for these and some other reasons that organisations and human rights activists have campaigned for the abolition of the death penalty, calling it a "cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment." Amnesty International which is in the forefront of this campaign, considers it to be "the ultimate denial of human rights." So far, the campaign is yielding dividends. As at May 1, 2009, 93 countries have abolished capital punishment, while 58 have actively retained it. Even in the U.S., as at March 18 this year, 15 states and the District of Columbia have banned capital punishment.

We sympathise with the states where kidnapping is rampant. Kidnappers stand condemned, but killing them judicially is not necessarily the solution. Governors faced with the kidnapping dilemma, or indeed any form of violent crime need to first examine the effectiveness of the security systems in their states. How pro-active have the Police and the State Security Service (SSS) been in tackling the menace? How many kidnappers have been apprehended and subjected to existing laws on kidnapping, no matter how weak these may be?

We believe that there is at present, a failure of security and intelligence in many parts of the country. The primary task is to bring kidnappers to book. This would require a better understanding of their methods and profiles, and the capacity to enforce the law. State governments and the police may consider forming special anti-kidnapping squads, if only to contend with the criminals who now operate almost without opposition. Kidnapping is a brand of terrorism, for which the country's security outfits should be properly trained. Greater attention should also be paid to the justice administration system, which is slow and ineffective. Where kidnappers or perpetrators of other violent crimes are caught, they should be speedily tried and sanctioned where appropriate.

In the circumstance, and in a country where the justice administration machinery is itself weak, it may be better and safer to elongate prison terms for kidnappers or even jail them for life as a deterrent. The cost of possible execution of innocent persons is inadvisable.

In addition, government should invest in public education and enlightenment regarding preventive measures that can be taken as well as the management of the trauma of kidnapping. In the long run, government must appreciate that these crimes have gradually assumed the present dimension as a result of dwindling job opportunities in the country, and the failure of the system. A growing army of unemployed youths now takes to kidnapping as a means of livelihood. Providing jobs for the jobless is a major challenge for the Nigerian government at all levels.