THE ongoing work by the House of Representatives on a bill seeking to criminalise torture and other inhuman treatments represents a turning point in the effort of government and human rights groups to check impunity and high-handedness in the society.
When passed into law, victims of torture can get justice in cases where the law failed to prevent the crime.
Over the years, the rate of torture and inhuman treatments has been on the increase. There is no respite for ordinary citizens who fall victims to torture in many forms and circumstances.
Incidents of torture are commonplace at home, offices, police cells and other detention facilities as well as public places. Wives are tortured by husbands; husbands by wives; parents torture children and children torture parents.
Besides, work-related torture in which some employers inflict suffering on their hapless employees is rife. Also, daily incidents of uniformed law enforcement personnel torturing members of the public at the slightest provocation in traffic, at road blocks and other public places occur.
Persons clamped into cells and other detention facilities are routinely subjected to the most traumatic inhuman treatment by the officers put in their charge. Many have been killed extra-judicially as a result of torture and sadly enough, quite often, the victims suffer or die while the culprits go scot-free without facing justice.
Against this background, the anti-torture bill is coming at a most opportune time. For the first time, at least, torture victims would be protected while the culprits are made to face the wrath of the law. With appropriate punishment awaiting culprits, acts of impunity are bound to fall.
Known as a Bill for an Act Penalising the Commission of Acts of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishments, the bill, when passed into law, will penalise every act of high-handedness by individuals towards their subordinates, servants, or people in custody in the case of criminal suspects under investigation.
The bill became necessary for reasons that torture and other cruel inhuman or degrading treatments or punishments are strictly prohibited under international law, regardless of what crime the victim may be suspected of having committed. The enactment of a law against torture and ill-treatment would protect the rights of the potential victims of such ill-treatment and would enable the punishment of the responsible individual(s), thus, ensuring there will be no impunity.
The proposed bill underscores that freedom from torture is a non-derogatory right. No exceptional circumstances, whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war; internal political instability, or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification for torture. The bill seeks to, among other things, criminalise torture as an act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him/her or a third person information or a confession; punish a person for an act he/she or a third person has committed or is suspected to have committed.
Section 1(a) and (b) of the bill seeks to make it a state policy to ensure that the rights of all persons, including suspects, detainees and prisoners are respected at all times; and that no person placed under investigation or held in custody of any person in authority shall be subjected to physical harm, force, violence, threat, intimidation or any act that impairs his will. The bill also seeks to ensure full adherence to the principles and standards on the absolute condemnation and prohibition of torture set by the 1999 Constitution and other international instruments to which Nigeria is a State party.
Acts that constitute torture, according to the bill, include systematic beatings, head-banging, punching, kicking, striking with rifle butts and pumping on the stomach. Others are food deprivation or forceful feeding with spoilt food, animal or human excreta or other food not normally eaten.
Electric shock, cigarette burning, burning by electrically heated rod, hot oil, acid, robbing of pepper or other chemical substances on mucous membranes or acid or spices directly on wounds are also to be outlawed, as are submersion of the head in water or water polluted with excrement, urine, vomit and/or blood until the brink of suffocation.
The list is completed with acts of being tied or forced to assume to fixed and stressful bodily position, sexual abuse and any other acts considered tortuous by the bill.
Having passed through the third reading, the bill is ready for harmonization if necessary, for onward transmission to the President for assent.
The lawmakers should indeed fast track this very important human rights bill for assent by the President before the May 29 handover to a new administration.
And once that is done, it would be one of the very few good things to be said about the outgoing legislature.