As COVID-19 continues to disrupt everyday society, governments around the world have had to make careful changes to their judicial systems in order to adapt to physical distancing policies. Thousands of prisoners serving minor or short sentences have been temporarily released, and many European countries have chosen to postpone trials all together. In the United States, the Supreme Court has begun hearing virtual oral arguments in an effort to avoid backlog and adhere to the shire volume of petitioned cases. The court has also chosen to broadcast the audio of each hearing live, allowing the public an unprecedented opportunity to witness landmark cases be implemented into the American legal doctrine. With health officials warning that the pandemic could for many more months, it is imperative that judicial institutions find new means to uphold justice in a fair and ethical manner.
Unfortunately, a Nigerian court recently turned a blind eye to due process after sentencing Olalekan Hameed to death in a remote hearing. Hameed, who pled not guilty to killing his mother’s employer Jolasun Okunsanya in December 2018, appeared virtually from prison via Zoom before Justice Dada of the Lagos High Court. Nigerian Justice Ministry spokesperson Kayode Oyekanmi reported that Hameed’s lawyer and the prosecutors were able to attend the hearing remotely as well. On Monday May 4th, Hameed was found guilty of murder and was ordered by Justice Dada to “be hanged by the neck until you be pronounced dead and may the Lord have mercy upon your soul. This is the virtual judgement of the court.” While Hameed has the right to appeal his sentence, it has not yet been reported whether or not he will choose to do so.
This decision has sparked international outrage from several human rights groups, who have regarded the court’s verdict as being “inherently cruel and inhumane.” Human Rights Watch, a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) based out of New York City, has been particularly vocal in their opposition of the ruling. While the organization told BBC that “the creation of the virtual court during the coronavirus outbreak showed a commitment to accessing justice,” they explicitly condemned the court’s actions and claimed that the Nigerian Judiciary is “moving in the wrong direction.” In addition, London based NGO Amnesty International questioned why this case could not have been delayed until in person court proceedings could resume. Osai Ojigho, who serves as Amnesty’s Nigeria Director, stated that “we know many courts are exploring how they can continue cases virtually, but the challenge is how much thought has been given to the process for virtual court sittings.” Ojigho further commented that “it’s worth exploring if the processes that led to the virtual sitting followed the principle of natural justice and a fair hearing.”
Ojigho’s remarks call into question whether or not justice can be established in a virtual environment, and if it makes sense to postpone all non essential cases until COVID-19 has subsided. While remote trials are far less financially costly and solve many logistical problems, it is difficult to ensure that defendants receive adequate counsel and that their legal rights are upheld. In this setting, lawyers are separated from their clients, and the accused is unable to look the judge in the eye and provide an in person account of the case at hand. Likewise, by being physically isolated from their legal representatives, there are far more ways in which inmates can be abused in prison and fall victim to inhumane or unlawful detention policies enforced by jail guards and personnel. Virtual hearings place those who await trial from prison in a considerably disadvantaged position, which is why Olalekan Hameed’s case must be retried after the pandemic has concluded, in order to ensure that he did in fact receive a fair and impartial legal treatment ahead of his verdict.
COVID-19 has forced countries all over the world to alter policy and procedure as necessary to adapt to physical distancing. However, these changes do not mean that nations striving for democracy should ever infringe upon basic legal rights. Capital punishment in itself can be considered an unethical abuse of human dignity, and therefore should have absolutely no presence whatsoever in a remote setting. Unfortunately, it is possible that Hameed’s trial may serve as precedent for other countries to also begin overlooking proper legal judgement, and start carrying out virtual execution sentences of their own. It is for this reason why the initiative put forth by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International must be brought into the spotlight, as they reveal why it is almost impossible for accused individuals to receive fair trials over teleconferencing apps like Zoom.
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