LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Nigeria is preparing to execute a man who was dragged to the gallows and watched four fellow death-row inmates being hanged earlier this week, Amnesty International and Nigerian human rights lawyers said Wednesday.
Thankgod Ebhos won a brief respite because his sentence by a military tribunal called for him to be shot by a firing squad.
"Cruel and inhumane do not even begin to describe the nightmare situation facing this man," said Lucy Freeman, deputy Africa director of London-based Amnesty International.
She said it indicates "the spectacularly brutal nature of Nigeria's sudden return to state-sponsored killing."
Nigeria has not carried out the death sentence since 2006 under a self-imposed moratorium.
This week's hangings come two weeks after President Goodluck Jonathan urged state governors to sign death warrants because it was the law.
"Even governors sometimes find it difficult to sign," he said in a Father's Day speech. But, he added, "The works we are doing have a very sweet part and a very ugly part and we must perform both. No matter how painful it is, it is part of their responsibilities."
A presidential spokesman, Doyin Okupe, did not respond to calls and messages asking why Jonathan made the statement. It comes as Nigeria confronts the deadliest threat in years to its security, from an Islamist insurgency and holds a sixth of the country in the northeast under a state of emergency and military crackdown.
European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton on Wednesday called for governors not to sign death warrants, and for authorities to refrain from further executions.
She said the hangings counter commitments by Nigerian authorities, most recently at an EU-Nigeria human rights dialogue in March, to maintain the moratorium on executions.
On Monday, Governor Adams Oshiomole of southern Edo state signed two death warrants and other governors signed warrants for three other prisoners. Within hours, all four were hanged at the state capital's Benin City Prison, Edo state Attorney General Osagie Obayuwana has confirmed, adding that they had exhausted all their appeals.
But there are numerous appeals pending before the Supreme Court, including one filed hours before the executions, making the hangings a violation of Nigeria's own laws, said human rights lawyer Chino Obiagwu of the Legal Defense and Assistant Project.
All five men had been on death row for at least 16 years under sentences issued by courts when Nigeria was under a military dictatorship notorious for its unfair trials and for torturing prisoners to sign confessions, said Angela Uwandu, Nigeria director for the French group Lawyers Without Borders, or Avocats Sans Frontieres.
She told The Associated Press that police and security forces continue to use torture to extract confessions, causing serious pain, psychological trauma and physical deformity.
In addition, she said judges hands are tied because capital punishment is mandatory for murder and armed robbery.
She also charged the country has a flawed and sometimes corrupt justice system that disproportionately targets the poor.
"When you have a situation where the only ones in prison and the only ones on death row are those who do not have the means to employ the services of a lawyer of their choice, that for me is a huge problem," she said.
Nigeria had not executed anyone since 2006, though many have been sentenced to death. In fact, few people have been executed since democratically elected governments in 1999 took over from harsh military dictatorships, in part because governors are reluctant to sign death warrants, Uwandu said.
It's not known how many thousands of convicted criminals and others were executed by firing squad under the military.
Nigerian security forces still are accused of hundreds of extrajudicial killings, charges the military denies.
Nigeria had 1,039 people on death row by Jan. 31 this year, according to the latest figures from the prison administration. On that date, there were 50,900 inmates of whom 46,800 were awaiting trial, some of them for years. Trials themselves can last seven years because of numerous adjournments, according to Uwandu.
Some of those hanged Monday had been in jail for 20 years and more, Obiagwu said.
Those hanged are: Richard Igagu, 49, arrested in 1991 and sentenced in 1995; Chima Ijiofor, 43, arrested in 1994 and sentenced in 1998; Osarenmwinda Aiguokhian, 49, arrested in 1993 and sentenced in 1996; Daniel Nsofor would have been just 18 years old when he was arrested in 1992. He was convicted two years later.
Calls and messages to Edo state officials went unanswered Wednesday, so it was impossible to get any information about the possible fate of the fifth man, Thankgod Ebhos.
Associated Press Writer Bashir Adigun contributed to this report from Abuja, Nigeria.