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03/19/2012

Niger: Government Support for Abolition Encounters Resistance

The Death Penalty Worldwide updated its research for Niger this week. According to the U.N.’s definition, under which a state is deemed “abolitionist de facto” if it has not carried out any  executions in at least 10 years, Niger has been an abolitionist de facto state for over a quarter of a century, and death sentences are rarely pronounced by courts. Nevertheless, a recent government attempt to abolish capital punishment was defeated, highlighting the complex dynamic between abolitionist and retentionist forces at the national level.

Since 1976, when the last executions were carried out in Niger, the death penalty has been primarily used to deal with political offenses. The last persons to be executed in the country were convicted of participating in an attempted coup. Of the 20 or so persons sentenced to death since then, 16 were either affiliated with the Tuareg in the civil conflict in North Niger, or had attempted a coup d’état. The last known death sentence was pronounced in 2008 against a former minister and Tuareg leader, Rhissa Ag Boula, for an alleged political killing. In 2010, Boula was acquitted and released, following the 2009 peace deal between the government and the Tuareg.

Although it has been 36 years since Niger last carried out an execution, there is strong resistance to abolition in some parts of Niger society. The current government saw the major constitutional reforms of the past year as an opportunity to abolish capital punishment, and in December 2010, the Conseil Consultatif National, or transitional parliament, was convened in an extraordinary session to discuss an abolition bill. The bill was ultimately defeated by 40 to 23. Opposition was divided between those who claimed no decision should be taken before an in-depth national debate had taken place, and those who suspected the abolition bill to be the result of lobbying by foreign forces such as international organizations.

Nevertheless, at its human rights review before the U.N. Human Rights Council in February 2011, Niger declared that it was continuing to “[develop] strategies for approval” of abolition. The government plans to raise public awareness of death penalty issues among religious leaders, traditional chiefs, NGOs, political parties and state institutions to ensure public support before re-submitting an abolition bill to a vote.

The recent abolition attempt and Niger’s long execution hiatus are difficult to reconcile with the country’s position with regard to an official moratorium on executions. From the late 80s to the early 90s, then President Saïbou instituted an official moratorium by announcing that all death sentences confirmed on appeal would be commuted to life imprisonment. Today, however, the Niger government will not commit to an official moratorium, declaring to the Human Rights Council only that there is a de facto moratorium in place. Moreover, at the U.N. General Assembly vote on the institution of a global moratorium on executions, Niger aligned itself in 2008 and 2010 with prominent pro-death penalty states and signed the Note Verbale of dissociation from the moratorium proposal. Niger also abstained from voting on the moratorium itself.

Our updated research on the death penalty in Niger is available here.

 -- Delphine Lourtau

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