LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Traumatized inmates heard screams and thuds from the gallows as Nigerian authorities Monday hanged four convicted criminals in the West African nation's first known executions since 2006, a human rights lawyer said.
A fifth man at Benin City Prison was briefly saved when the executioner had technical problems with the gallows, Chino Obiagwu of the national lawyers' rights group LEPAD told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
But he later forwarded an email from someone in the prison saying that man had been taken to the gallows, and "the sound of the gallows is heard, we believe execution has been done, is over." There was no way to immediately verify that information.
Attorney General Henry Idahagbon of southern Edo state confirmed the four executions, the official News Agency of Nigeria reported.
Amnesty International's deputy Africa director, Lucy Freeman, said the hangings would mark "a truly dark day for human rights" in Africa's most populous nation.
Obiagwu said the men were hanged despite pending suits at the appeal court and had been on death row for 16 years. He said two were his clients, convicted of murder, but he did not know for what crimes the others had been sentenced.
"Under Nigerian laws, an appeal and application for stay of execution should restrain further action ... By executing the prisoners, Nigeria's government has demonstrated a gross disregard to the rule of law and respect for the judicial process," he said.
Amnesty International said more than 1,000 people are reportedly on death row in Nigeria, a country of some 160 million people.
Obiagwu said a court dismissed his organization's appeal challenging the state government's signing of execution warrants and a motion to stop executions. That was around 3 p.m.
"They (authorities) had already started preparing for the executions, they turned us away from the prison and by 6:15 p.m. we heard from clients (in the prison) that they had been executed."
He said traumatized inmates called him to describe "terrible sounds" like a drum rolling, shackles scratching and the screams of those condemned begging for mercy.
"The death row prisoners in the suit contend that to execute them after over 16 years of trauma, suspense and imminent death would amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment," Obiagwu said.
He identified those hanged as Chima Ejiofor, Daniel Nsofor, Osarenmwinda Aiguokhan and Richard Igagu. The fifth man was identified as Thankgod Ebhos.
LEPAD has taken legal action to prevent executions since all Nigeria's state governors said in March 2011 they wanted to resume them. A suit was filed on behalf of all death row inmates.