28 Jul 06
When Uzonna Tochi picked up the phone last week he heard the most chilling words of his life. “Please do something fast to save my life; they might execute me anytime now,” Uzonna’s older brother, Iwuchukwu Amara Tochi, pleaded from Singapore.
Iwuchukwu Amara Tochi, 19, is sitting on death row in Singapore with Okele Nelson Malachy, 31, condemned in March after being found guilty of transporting 727.03 grams of heroin into Singapore.
Singapore’s Misuse of Drugs Act carries a mandatory death sentence for anyone found guilty of trafficking more than 15 grams of heroin. The two men will be executed this year if they are not granted clemency from Singapore’s president.
Uzonna and human rights organisations from around the world have not given up hope. Still, they say it is hard to garner international outrage to save the life of a poor Nigerian.
M. Ravi, a human rights lawyer and a member of the opposition party, Singapore Democratic Party, wrote in an online appeal that Iwuchukwu and Malachy, as Africans, stand in danger of being executed if nothing urgent is done to save their lives.
Unlike Iwuchukwu, Malachy is classified as stateless and no country has the direct responsibility of pleading for him. He carried a South African passport, but officials believe he is Nigerian.
“There has been a spate of executions of African nationals across Asia, which had gone unnoticed. The Australian and Western counterparts get different treatment in the media,” Ravi wrote on the web site.
For instance, German national Julia Bohl, who was convicted for drug trafficking in 2002, escaped the gallows in Singapore when she was released from prison and exiled in 2005.
This year Ravi has embarked on a tour of European countries, holding press conferences and meeting parliamentarians in an effort to seek support for Iwuchukwu and Malachy.
Groups like the Amnesty International also have launched campaigns to save the lives of the condemned men. In Lagos, the country’s largest human rights group, the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) has started a drive to force the Nigerian government to intervene on behalf of the condemned men.
“Since he lost the appeal, I always fear that the next moment might be his last,” a ruffled Uzonna told IPS.
He has every reason to be concerned about his brother, who he described as the bread winner of the family. Once a football player, Iwuchukwu first took to trading before leaving Nigeria for Pakistan four years ago.
He was on a trip from Pakistan to Singapore when he was arrested at the Changi Airport 27 November 2004 on allegations of transporting heroin into Singapore. His lawyer told the court Iwuchukwu did not know the pills he was shipping contained heroin. He thought he was bringing in medicines.
The arrest and conviction of his brother is kept secret from his parents, Uzonna said. “My poor parents will die if they hear that a child who has worked so hard to sustain them is facing a death sentence,” he said.
Uzonna has visited Nigeria’s Ministry of External Affairs twice and that officials promised they would write letters in support of his brother’s life. He added he was unsure if the promise was kept.
Officials of the Ministry of External Affairs could not give a definite answer when IPS enquired as to whether they are doing anything to save Iwuchukwu’s life.
“The Nigerian government has not done anything public to show it is interested in saving Iwuchukwu’s life,” says Princewill Akpakpan, head of the penal reform project at CLO.
“The government is hardly bothered about Iwuchukwu because Nigeria, just like Singapore, has the death penalty,” Akpakpan told IPS.
If the two had been convicted for the same offence in Nigeria, they would have earned a lighter sentence of between three years and life imprisonment, Jonah Achema, Assistant Director Public Affairs of the Nigerian Drug Law Enforcement Agency, told IPS.
“It would depend on the discretion of the judge and other factors like whether he is a first offender or not,” Achema said.
A Nigerian law scrapped the death penalty for drug offenders in 1986. “This is an indication of the evolving nature of our laws,” Achema told IPS.
Figures of those executed for drug-related offences around the world are not readily available. But Ryan Schlief, who works on the Singapore desk at Amnesty International in London, told IPS that Asian and Middle Eastern countries that retain the death penalty are doing so to crack down on drugs.
Singapore, in particular, has come under special criticism for its harsh death penalty laws. More than 420 persons have been executed there since 1991, the majority for drug trafficking. Singapore is believed to have the highest per capita execution rate in the world.
Critics question the justification for executing drug offenders. Instead, they say, the best way to deter crime is to increase the certainty of detection, arrest and conviction.
“Drug offenders should in effect not be made to pay with their lives,” Akpakpan said.
Moreover, no study has proven that the death penalty reduces crime. In Iran, nearly 2,000 people were reportedly executed for drug offences between 1988 and 1999; a report by the country’s official news agency IRNA observes that in spite of the executions, the problem of drug trafficking had not been resolved.
In 1995, 26 governments adopted laws making drug-related offences punishable by death. The countries see the death penalty as an effective and cheap way of removing criminally minded individuals from the society.
Growing pressure from civil society groups for a total abolition of the death penalty forced the Nigerian government to initiate a national debate on whether or not to retain the death sentence.
Singapore has no room for such debates, human rights workers said.
“There is usually little public debate in Singapore about the death penalty, partly as a result of tight government controls on the press and civil society organisations,” Amnesty International said in a report.
Amnesty International was a victim of this government control in April 2005, when Singapore denied an AI member permission to speak at a conference on the death penalty organised by political opposition leaders and human rights activists.
Moreover, the Singaporean government rarely grants clemency for drug traffickers, Ravi and Amnesty said, making more urgent the need to keep up international pressure to save the lives of Malachy and Iwuchukwu Tochi.
SDP Note: M Ravi is not a member of the SDP.