As Reps spark emotions over condemned Suleimon Olufemi

Gbajabiamila and Wase being ushered out of first plenary at the 9th House of Representatives


Suleimon Olufemi, a Nigerian sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia, was forgotten, or so it seemed until last week when the House of Representatives alerted the federal government on the need to take steps to ensure his case is reviewed. JOSHUA EGBODO writes.

The review has been deemed necessary following some perceived lapses in the prosecution process. 

The story

Suliamon Olufemi, born in Lagos on April 20, 1978, reportedly travelled to Saudi Arabia on an Umrah Visa in September 2002. On arrival at the airport in Jeddah, he was said to have called a friend who he had plans to stay with in Jeddah. However, his friend’s telephone number could not be reached. A lady he met at the airport suggested that he goes to Karantina, a suburb of Jeddah, where she said he (Suleimon) would find many Nigerians who might help him locate his friend. 

Suliamon acted on the advice and went to Karantrna, where he actually met some Nigerians, but could still not locate his friend as no one there knew the said friend. The Nigerians he met offered him accommodation. On September 28, 2002 (days after his arrival in Saudi Arabia), he followed the Nigerians to a car wash in the Bab Shanf area of Jeddah, where many African nationals work as car cleaners. 

Security raid, death of a policeman

On the day Suleimon went out with his countrymen to the car wash, a group of local men armed with guns and having among them a Saudi police officer, raided the location following which a dispute reportedly arose between the raiders and foreign nationals, resulting in the police officer getting fatally wounded. He later died from the injuries. 

The following day, which was precisely September 29, 2002, mass arrests of foreign nationals were made by the Saudi authorities, mostly of African descent, among who were Suleimon and 12 other Nigerians.

 Names of the other arrested Nigerians were given as Abbas Majood Akanni; Murtala Amao Oladele; Abbas Azeez Oladuni; Nurudeen Owoalade; Nurudeen Sani; Mohammed Abdulahi Yussuf; Wahid Elebute; Ahmed Abbas Alabi; Mafiu Obadina; Samiu Hamud Zuberu; Kasrm Afolabi and Abdu|lamim Shobayo. 

Summary trial 

An initial summary trial, which held after the mass arrests, reportedly saw many of the foreign nationals sentenced to short prison terms and cane lashes, as well as deportation. However, Suliamon and the 12 other Nigerians were booked for further prosecution over the death of the Saudi police officer.

Amnesty International’s perspective

Amnesty international said it received reports that Suliamon was tortured during interrogation in order to force him to sign statements written in Arabic, in its words; “a language that he (Suleimon) could neither read nor understand”. Amnesty International, therefore, believed that the suspect under duress, put his fingerprints, which can be taken as a substitute for a signature, to a statement written in Arabic, only to later learn in the court that he had “signed” a statement, admitting that he hit the police officer on the head with a gun. 

The group said its investigation suggested that the other 12 men were also said to have been tortured including being hung upside down, kicked and beaten, with one of them reportedly treated with electric shock to his genitals in order to obtain forced information.

Suleimon sentenced to death

Close to three years later, and that was in May 2005, Suliamon Olufemi was sentenced to death after a closed trial which reportedly took place in the absence of any legal or Nigerian consular representation, and adequate interpretation and translation arrangement. The 12 other Nigerians were sentenced to prison terms and cane lashes.

The 12 men, who were unaware of their crimes until a judge reportedly asked them in English “why did you kill the policeman”, were initially sentenced to five years imprisonment in May 2005; the sentence was increased to seven years confinement on November 30, 2005 in a closed court; and in 2006 increased to 10 years imprisonment and yet increased to 15 years Imprisonment with 1000 lashes. 

Reports were that one of the other 12 suspects, Nurudeen Sam died in prison following lack of medical care while the 11 others were deported to Nigeria in 2017 after completing their 15 year prison sentence with 1000 cane lashes. 

Death sentence confirmed

Amnesty International admitted that the Saudi Arabian Human Rights Commission wrote it in April 2007, to confirm that the death sentence against Suliamon Olufemi had been upheld by the Court of Cassation and the Supreme Judicial Council, meaning he has no further recourse to appeal. 

However, the body has for years been appealing to the government of Saudi Arabia to grant Suliamon Olufemi clemency, pointing out the gross unfairness in his trial. 

Hard, and the only way out

It has been reported that the Saudi authorities continue to detain Suliamon in prison to allow the youngest child of the deceased police officer attain the age of 18, when the family can accept or reject the payment of diya (blood money) in place of the death penalty. Amnesty International however expressed serious concerns over lack of transparency from the Saudi authorities in the case, noting that it is unclear whether the youngest child of the deceased police officer has reached the age of 18. 

Reps’ intervention 

The House of Representatives Committee on Diaspora, last week brought stakeholders together over the matter, with concerns that Suleimon may at the moment be facing the honest risk of execution. The Nigeria Diaspora Commission and the Amnesty International separately appealed to Saudi Arabian authorities to review the cases of Nigerians facing death and other sentences.

Chairman of the Committee Hon Tolulope Sadipe at the meeting said “It’ll be a sad thing if an innocent soul is executed, the Saudi Arabians have their own laws and execution is within the laws. We cannot change that, but what we can do is to implore the Saudi government to look at this case again with an unbiased eye because this young man is innocent and if executed, it’s a sin against humanity and a sin before Allah.”

What government is doing

In their respective submissions, representative of the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and chairman of the Nigeria Diaspora Commission, Hon Abike Dabiri-Erewa, explained that the Nigerian government had been on the case for over a decade. While tasking Amnesty International of having yet “a lot of work to do with Saudi”, Dabiri-Erewa said. “As we were engaging with them the day before yesterday (Monday), they were still asking why would somebody looking for Umrah be involved in a mob action?”

“This is an opportunity to tell our people that there are some things that can be avoided. Somebody held a gun and they said it’s him, but we are praying it’s not him and we are praying that this intervention will yield results. They don’t see laws as we do, and you know according to Sharia law, if you kill somebody that doesn’t deserve to be killed, you will be killed. So as far as they are concerned, whoever they sentence to death deserves it. They don’t do emotions with law, we do emotions with law here….”.

What hope for Suleimon?

All arguments, in spite of emotions pointed to the fact that the law is law, especially in a clime like Saudi Arabia. However, there may yet be a lot of unanswered questions. For instance, how was he (Suleimon) figured out in a dispute reported by the authorities as a mob action? Amnesty International vowed never to give up, but there are fears that the daughter of the late police officer may be guided by family and the authorities, to decline any offer of compensation, and if that happens, it is no other option but death for Suleimon.

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