Final farewell letter from Tochi to his lawyer, M. Ravi (Photo by Reuters/Nicky Loh)
By Koh Gui Qing
SINGAPORE, Jan 25 (Reuters) – A 21-year-old Nigerian is set to be hanged for drug smuggling in Singapore on Friday morning, despite international protests and a last-minute hunger strike by Singaporean civil rights activists.
Iwuchukwu Amara Tochi will be hanged at dawn on Friday, according to an official at the Nigerian embassy in Singapore, after he was arrested at Singapore’s Changi Airport in November 2004 for carrying about 727 grams (25.6 ounces) of heroin.
Tochi’s family has not travelled to Singapore to see him because they cannot afford the plane tickets, the embassy official said, adding that “he was well”.
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo asked the Singapore government on Tuesday to grant a reprieve to Tochi, who was a champion football player in Nigeria according to human rights group, Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign.
Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs declined to comment on Obasanjo’s appeal.
Amnesty International, which also appealed to Singapore last week to spare Tochi’s life, said the judge who convicted Tochi of drug smuggling “appears to have accepted that he might not have realised the substance he was carrying was heroin”.
In Geneva, the United Nations’ special investigator for extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions said Singapore would be violating international legal standards on the use of the death penalty if it went ahead with the hanging.
Philip Alston, an Australian lawyer who reports to the U.N. Human Rights Council, said capital punishment could only be imposed if the evidence “left no room for an alternative interpretation of the facts”.
“In the case of Iwuchukwu Amara Tochi, the government of Singapore has failed to ensure respect for the relevant legal safeguards. Under the circumstances, the execution should not proceed,” he said in a statement.
The death sentence is mandatory for anyone caught carrying more than 15 grams of heroin in Singapore.
Two leading Singapore civil rights activist started a 24-hour hunger strike in protest at the planned execution.
“The state does not have the right to take a life. It’s judicial murder,” said M. Ravi, a human rights lawyer, as he sat on a straw mat laid out in Singapore’s Speakers’ Corner, the only place in Singapore where citizens can make public speeches.
The hanging of Tochi comes more than a year after Singapore hanged an Australian man, Nguyen Tuong Van, 25, in December 2005 amid much public outcry, and despite repeated pleas for clemency, including from the Australian parliament.
On Thursday, a Singapore court charged another Australian for drug trafficking, but he narrowly escaped the death sentence, which is mandatory for anyone caught with more than 500 grams of cannabis.
Michael Karras, 38, was arrested on Jan. 9 after he was found with about 495 grams of cannabis in a rented flat. Karras, who is pleading not guilty according to his lawyer S.S. Dhillon, faces a maximum of 40 years in jail and 30 strokes of the cane.
Singapore has the highest per capita execution rate in the world, and has hanged more than 420 people since 1991, according to Amnesty International.
The death penalties in Singapore’s anti-drug laws have been criticised by human rights groups as inhumane. But the Singapore government say they are necessary because of the city-state’s close location to drug-producing countries.
Mail & Guardian Online, 25 Jan 2007
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.
M. Ravi, left, lights candles around a football jersey belonging to Iwuchukwu Amara Tochi, while Chee Siok Chin, right, observes a moment of silence as they keep vigil, Thursday Jan. 25, 2007 in Singapore. (Associated Press Photo/Alphonso Chan)
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.
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.