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Benin Abolished Death Penalty in 2016, but 14 Prisoners Remain on Death Row

In January 2016, the Constitutional Court of Benin effectively abolished the death penalty in a ruling that stated that “no one can now be sentenced to capital punishment.”  Prior to this ruling, in 2013, the National Assembly repealed death penalty provisions in the Criminal Procedure Code.  Currently, a bill is pending in the National Assembly that seeks to completely remove death penalty provisions in the Criminal Code.

The Constitutional Court’s ruling is the latest development in a series of events leading to abolition of the death penalty in this West African country.  The last known execution in Benin was carried out in 1987 and the last death sentence was handed down in 2010.  In 2012, the country signed on to the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, committing to immediately cease applying capital punishment and to fully abolish the death penalty in law in the near future.

Despite these reforms, 14 prisoners remain under sentence of death. And while Benin has committed not to execute these prisoners, their sentences have not been commuted.  The prisoners include 10 Beninese, two Nigerians, one Togolese and one Ivorian. In 2016, Amnesty International visited the prison where these prisoners are still being held and described substandard conditions.  The prisoners that researchers talked to have lived for decades under the constant fear of death. At least three prisoners have died from serious illnesses such as malaria and tuberculosis while on death row.

According to Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), “[n]o one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.”  In the last 20 years, jurisprudence has developed in support of the idea that continued incarceration on death row (also known as “death row phenomenon“) constitutes cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment.  In Pratt v. Morgan, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council determined that a five-year wait between conviction and execution presumptively constitutes cruel and inhuman punishment.  Courts in Canada and Uganda have reached similar conclusions.  In the United States, the issue has not yet reached the Supreme Court; however, two justices have voiced their support for recognizing the phenomenon as a violation of fundamental rights.

Amnesty has urged authorities in Benin to commute the death sentences of the 14 prisoners remaining on death row in order to comply with the country’s international obligations. Noting that 104 countries worldwide have abolished the death penalty, Amnesty has urged Benin, as a member of this global majority, to completely eliminate any remnants of the old death penalty system and to commute the sentences of these men who have suffered for decades under the old regime.