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NIGERIA: Thousands of prisoners awaiting trial to be freed

abuja, 5 January 2006 (IRIN) - Nigeria plans to free some 25,000 inmates, many of whom have been awaiting trial for years, in a bid to decongest overcrowded and unhygienic prisons and improve its human rights record.

"The issue of awaiting trial inmates has become an endemic problem in Nigeria," said Justice Minister Bayo Ojo after a cabinet meeting late Wednesday. "The conditions of the prisons are just too terrible. The conditions negate the essence of prison, which is to reform."

According to government figures, two thirds of Nigeria's 45,000 prisoners have not yet had a trial - in some cases because their files have gone missing, in others because witnesses were unavailable.

A government-commissioned survey published last year found that suspects were dumped in violent, overcrowded cells and left with no legal assistance, no trial date and no hope of getting out - a process which has long drawn the ire of human rights groups.

"We have found that recently there has been a series of jailbreaks which are just samples of what is waiting to happen if immediate intervention is not undertaken," the justice minister said on Wednesday.

Under the new government scheme, inmates who have spent between three and ten years waiting for a trial will have their cases reviewed for immediate release. Prisoners who have already been in jail longer than they would have been if convicted are also eligible, as are the elderly, those infected with HIV/AIDS and other terminally ill prisoners.

"By the time the process is completed we hope to have reduced the number of inmates to between 15,000 and 20,000," Ojo said.

Six "halfway houses" will be set up across the sprawling West African nation, to rehabilitate inmates and offer them trade and skills training before they go back to their communities.

An official at the justice ministry said that around 1 billion naira (US $78 million) had been set aside for the plan to free up prisons, with much of the funds going to government-hired lawyers who will review the thousands of cases.

The government has also approved setting up a prison board for each of the country's 227 prisons, which will be made up of law enforcement officials and human rights workers. There will also be a nationwide chief inspector of prisons who will report to President Olusegun Obasanjo.

The president has in the past pledged reform of the prisons system after acknowledging his first-hand experience of conditions in Nigerian jails, during the time he was imprisoned for allegedly plotting a coup under the rule of former military leader General Sani Abacha. Obasanjo emerged from prison after Abacha's death and went on to win elections designed to end a 15-year stretch of military rule.

Theme (s): Human Rights,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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