Nigerian spends last days alone as execution nears

January 26, 2007
Singapore Democrats

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Mail and Guardian
25 Jan 07

A final farewell letter from Tochi to his lawyer, Ravi. A 21-year-old Nigerian man was spending his last day of life on Thursday without the comfort of a single relative or friend ahead of his execution by hanging in a Singapore prison.

Despite a clemency plea by Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, there was no word from the government of any change in the death sentence.

Tochi Amara Iwuchukwu, a promising footballer, was convicted of trafficking in 727 grams of heroin estimated to be worth 1,5-million Singapore dollars ($970,000). He was arrested at Changi Airport after arriving from Dubai in November 2004.

“We understand Tochi comes from a poor family in Nigeria with no one able to afford the trip to see him for the last time,” said Chee Siok Chin, one of two activists who launched a hunger strike in the rain early on Thursday to protest against the execution.

She said her own request to visit him was denied by the prison department.

“I received a letter stipulating that such visits were only accorded to family. This is terribly sad,” she added.

Only representatives of the Nigerian Embassy showed up to offer any comfort. “The embassy is standing by him,” said Ucheha Eke, who has visited on several occasions.

A priest was also being sought since Tochi is Catholic.

Ravi standing beside the soccer jersey of Tochi, who was coming to Singapore to play for a club before being arrested. Chee and lawyer M Ravi, both Singaporeans, planned to remain at the city-state’s Speakers’ Corner until nightfall, and then move with other sympathisers to the grounds outside the prison and remain until the execution.

In a handwritten letter delivered to Ravi’s office on Thursday, Tochi said, “Thank you for all your efforts.” He also wished Ravi, who represented him late in the case, a “happy new year”.

Singapore does not announce the dates of hangings in advance. A letter from the prisons department to the family informed them of the date and said they would be allowed extra visiting time during the three days prior to the execution.

Hangings in the city-state are carried out at 6am.

Under standard procedures, prisoners are hand-cuffed while led to the gallows. A hood is placed over the head and a noose around the neck before the opening of a trapdoor, snapping the spinal cord.

The London-based Amnesty International called earlier for clemency, maintaining the judge who convicted the Nigerian appears to have “accepted that he might not have realised that the substance he was carrying was heroin”.

The death penalty is mandatory in the city-state for anyone caught with more than 15 grams of the drug, and Tochi’s appeal for clemency to President SR Nathan failed last year.

Execution is imposed in the most serious of crimes including drug trafficking, murder and use of firearms, the prisons department said on Wednesday.

Hanging “sends a strong signal to would-be offenders”, it added.

The hunger strike was announced after Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo urged Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to stop the hanging.

In Obasanjo’s plea to Lee on Tuesday, he mentioned the excellent relations between the two countries.

“I earnestly urge you to reconsider the conviction … and to commute the death sentence to imprisonment,” Obasanjo said.

Chee said the execution was tantamount to “cold-blooded murder.”

“If we remain silent, are we not accomplices?”

Outside demonstrations of any kind in Singapore are prohibited without a police permit. However, people are allowed to speak without amplification equipment at Singapore’s version of London’s famed Speakers’ Corner.

Singapore’s harsh drug laws caused an outcry in Australia in December 2004 when Nguyen Tuong Van (25) was hanged for carrying nearly 400 grams of heroin despite pleas by Prime Minister John Howard, New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and Pope Benedict XVI.

Amnesty claims Singapore has the highest rate of executions per capita in the world