Since Boko Haram began to extend its reach into Niger in 2014, around 1,600 suspected terrorists were arrested. Facing a high number of cases, the Nigerian justice system and especially the Specialised Judicial Unit in charge of the terrorism cases has been under pressure.
In January 2017, UNODC launched a twofold project in Niger. The two main objectives were:
(i) to strengthen the capacity of the judicial anti-terrorism unit and specialized anti-terrorism chambers to effectively investigate, prosecute and adjudicate terrorism cases and;
(ii) to ensure a facilitated access to justice in the context of the fight against terrorism by providing legal aid to detainees suspected of terrorism awaiting trials in Niger’s prisons.
An effective, fair and humane criminal justice system is based on the commitment to uphold human rights in the administration of justice, regardless of the crime that has been committed. Respecting human rights of detainees suspected in terrorism cases is key to strengthen the links between the populations and the authorities and thus safeguard the rule of law. “The human rights protections for all persons charged with criminal offences, including terrorism-related crimes, include the right to be presumed innocent, the right to a hearing with due guarantees and within a reasonable time, by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal, and the right to have a conviction and sentence reviewed by a higher tribunal satisfying the same standards.”
Considering that the SDGs are based on human rights, this project was designed to bring human rights to the fore and ensure that the detainees suspected of terrorism in the prisons in Niger were provided with legal assistance, information on their cases and try in a reasonable time by competent judges, prosecutors and magistrates.
Indeed, one of the aspects of the project was to bring some backlogged cases to the attention of the Specialized Judicial Unit. Due to the high number of cases, some files were lost, others were unclear, and the Unit was not able to track them all. 10 UN Volunteers have been hired and trained by UNODC and were in charge of investigating and interviewing detainees in prisons to collect more information on their cases. The result was that UNVs could clarify the number of detainees under one case, their names, the names of their parents when their names were similar and brief the Specialized Judicial Unit in consequence. This mission was challenging and requested a close follow-up but the result was that no one was left behind during the process.
The project contributes to achieving SDG 16 by reducing the number of “unsentenced detainees as a proportion of overall prison population” (SDG indicator 16.3.2). More importantly, this pilot project is also reducing the sense of injustice among detainees and thus indirectly contributing to prevent radicalisation in prisons (Target 16.A).
Besides that, by partnering with UNVs, UNODC is placing volunteerism and youth at the core of the project, in line with the Agenda 2030 that is strongly encouraging to integrate volunteerism into peace and development and promoting people’s engagement in all stages, especially young people as they have the potential to make the most effective transformation of the world into a better place for all. UNVs in this project have proven that they could be change-makers, critical thinkers and innovators and made this project a success that will be looked into to be replicated in other areas in the region.
Finally, this pilot project was also based on the SDG 5 on gender equality as for instance, there were five women and five men to ensure gender parity among the UNVs. Moreover, the UNVs have started interviewing women, children and the elderly as they were considered as the most vulnerable groups in prisons and a gender-sensitive approach was taken through the project, addressing specific needs of women in prison settings.
UNODC worked closely with national partners to design this project. A lot of preparative meetings took place before the implementation effectively started.
Moreover, one of the main partners under this project was the UNV Agency. The United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme has been partnering with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) since 1999. Indeed, this specific project employs 12 UNVs. One UNV Specialist based in Dakar is coordinating the work of 10 UNVs (legal) in Niger and 1 UNV, IT expert.
Before starting their assignments, the 10 Nigerian legal experts were trained on how to deliver legal aid services, especially to terrorism-suspected detainees, in June 2017. The modules covered the Nigerien framework of legal aid, techniques on how to provide legal aid services, the rights of the defense, legal aid to vulnerable groups, and gathering information from the client and from the authorities in order to better provide legal aid, among others. During their assignments, they received further trainings including on the psychological aspect of their work. In January 2019, for instance they received an additional training on the interviewing techniques and non-verbal communication.
As part of its Sahel programme on strengthening criminal justice systems in the Sahel, UNODC and the national counterparts designed a project on strengthening the capacity of the specialised anti-terrorism Unit and specialised anti-terrorism chambers to effectively investigate, prosecute and adjudicate terrorism cases while respecting Human rights and the Rule of Law in Niger.
In January 2017, many preparation meetings took place before starting the implementation. UNODC organized several meetings with different levels of counterparts, starting first with meeting the Specialized Unit, the Nigerien legal aid agency (ANAJJ), the Bar Association, the prison administrations, in order to end the process by meeting with the Ministry of Justice. This way, UNODC was able to gather information, make propositions and have them approved by the higher authority. The outcome of these meetings was the drafting of training modules for the recruitment of 10 young national UNVs hired by UNODC to support the Specialized Judicial Unit against terrorism.
UNVs in charge of this mission became operational in July 2017 and kicked off their work with weekly prison visits to the three prisons of Niamey, Kollo and Koutoukalé. To ensure equal access to justice, the Volunteers visited detainees in prisons, identified people who have exceeded the statutory period of remand as well as vulnerable persons in need of legal or judicial assistance (women, minors, elderly); brought cases requiring assistance to the attention of the competent authorities; and, if necessary, assisted inmates to complete court formalities.
Mr. Cheibou Samna, Prosecutor at the Judicial Unit, aknowledged the UNODC Volunteers’ added value: “The Volunteers make the link between the Unit and the detainees suspected of belonging to terrorist groups and allow the treatment of so many procedures. They continue to be a lever for the Specialised Judicial Unit”.
Results were beyond expectations and Mrs Amadou Bibata, Secretary General of the Ministry of Justice in Niger, expressed the country’s willingness to extend this cooperation: “We wish to thank UNODC for its support, which has been crucial, and we guarantee that the State of Niger will undertake everything to see this partnership continue”.
Once the project was being implemented, the monitoring mechanism in place allowed for several assessments throughout the project in order to make some adjustments along the process. Indeed, UNODC organized several assessment missions in Niger, including in January, March and October 2018.
Besides the work of UNVs, UNODC also strengthened capacities by providing specialised training for investigative judges, prosecutors and trial judges outside the Unit to better investigate, prosecute and adjudicate these cases; and by training defense lawyers to provide legal assistance and representation to terrorist suspects to support a fair and speedy trial of cases.
Since Boko Haram began to extend its reach into Niger in 2014, around 1,600 suspected terrorists were arrested, mostly in the region of Diffa. Thanks to the work of UNODC, UNV have been able to conduct 328 prison visits and a total of over 1,030 prisoners received legal aid. A resounding success of the implementation of this project has been the processing and disposal by the Specialized Judicial Unit of 460 cases involving 1,026 terrorism suspects by end of 2018. Among those 1,026, 812 were freed and 214 were condemned. Thus, the project resulted in the decrease of detainees in pre-trial in the prisons of Niger.
"Every day is a struggle but we don't feel bad working hard for this". When we see a glimmer of hope and light in the eyes of prisoners, it encourages us. "The results we have obtained motivate us," said Fatima* in January 2018 before evoking a story that particularly moved her during the interviews she conducted at the end of 2017. During an interview with an inmate in Kollo prison, 30 km South of the capital, she discovered that he had contracted a disease that prevents him from walking. She made every effort to obtain a permission to transfer him to Niamey prison so that he could benefit from medical care at the Niamey hospital. Thanks to her perseverance and determination, the transfer was approved and the detainee could see the doctor who referred him to Niamey hospital.
Thanks to this success, judges that were not welcomed anymore in the Diffa area after the arrests, were able to organize audiences back there and to come back to the communities. This possible return showed that the tensions between the population and the justice sector were smoothed and that the project contributed to rebuilding trust between the two.
According to the prison administration, the work of the UNVs has been really appreciated by the detainees as it has been efficient and had found concrete results with liberations among the detainees in pre-trials. This wind of hope in the prisons is considered by the prison administration as a way to prevent radicalisation in prisons. Radicalisation is prisons can be triggered by a sense of injustice.
In June 2018, after several assessment missions, an IT Specialist was recruited to work on a software with the Specialized Judicial Unit following a decision to computerize management of the procedures of terrorism. The IT Specialist hired by UNODC as a UNV started the implementation of the data processing software in order to be able to collect data on the numbers of cases, detainees and ultimately to better address terrorism cases. This software will benefit to the Judicial Unit itself
The number of 1,600 pretrial detainees in 2017 was reduced to 811 in March 2020 under this project (this data includes the results for first trimester 2020).
See https://www.unodc.org/westandcentralafrica/en/2020-08-04-unv-provide-legal-aid-niger.html. Note that in the first trimester of 2020, 12 cases were processed, leading to 17 convictions and 14 acquittals.
Thanks to the strong partnership between Niger and UNODC, this project was jointly designed and thus really addressed the needs of the Specialized Judicial Unit. Moreover, thanks to the independence given by the donor (the US), UNODC could conceptualize the activities with Niger directly.
Besides, UNVs are young and dynamic and represent a human resource that is very efficient. The involvement of the UNODC staff was also key to manage those volunteers. The good communication between UNODC staff and UNVs based in Niger was crucial and UNVs requested UNODC’s help for specific trainings and have benefitted from several training workshops along their assignments.
Though, the success of this project attracted some other partners that wanted to work with the same Unit, including bilaterals partners and some duplications were noticed. Some partners implemented activities planned by UNODC with the Unit before UNODC was able to. To curb this practice, UNODC had to extensively coordinate with the Unit.
Constraints: Visits to the prison of Koutoukale were suspended last year (May 2019) due to the security reasons. At the end of march 2020, visits to prisons have stopped due to Covid-19 restriction measures. However, UNV are still working to advance judicial files of pre-trial detainees suspected of terrorism, through telephone contacts with the prison administration and regular follow-up visits at the level of the specialized judicial pole.
On 5 February 2018, Mr Lapaque, UNODC Regional Representative, and Mr Erik Van der Veen, Coordinator of the UNODC Sahel Programme, met with the UN Volunteers in niamey during a planning meeting for the new phase of UNODC support project in order to congratulate them on their excellent work. In September 2018, the project was thus extended until September 2020. The experience is being considered as a good practice to be replicated in other Sahelian countries.
The problem of pre-trial detainees for suspects of terrorism is now very severe in Mali and in Burkina Faso and we are in the process of discussing with donors how to extend the practice.
The strong involvement of the Nigerien counterparts coupled with a transformative partnership with the youth through the UNVs made this project a good example of national ownership in the achievement of the SDGs. In addition to being a human right, legal aid strengthen the confidence in state authority and avoid risks of radicalization in prisons.