Much ado about Maryam Sanda’s death penalty

The death sentence handed down to Maryam Sanda for killing her husband, Bilyaminu Bello, has continued to generate controversies with civil society organisations faulting the judgement by Justice Yusuf Halilu as based on circumstantial evidence. In this report, ENE OSANG looks at events leading up to the sentencing and reactions trailing the judgement.

It was like a scene from a horror movie or a crime of passion television series where a young, rich, and beautiful lady stabs her husband to death, however, the crime was real in the case of Maryam Sanda and her deceased husband, Bilyamin Bello, 36.

Media reports had it that Maryam, daughter of a former executive of Aso Saving Bank, Maimuna Aliyu, had stabbed to death her estate developer husband, Bilyamin, son of two-time minister of defence and communication as well as acting chairman of the PDP Board of Trustees from 2015-2016, Haliru Bello.

To outsiders, the couple lived a happy life at their Maitama home with luxurious cars and circle of friends painting picture of a perfect relationship.

Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO), DPS Anjuguri Manzah, while confirming her arrest to journalists said Bilyamin’s death was not natural, stating that he was killed in his Maitama home in Abuja by his wife, Maryam, who stabbed hi severally with a knife.

Similarly, multiple media reports said she attacked her husband based on allegations of infidelity after seeing a text message on his phone.

Maryam was said to have stabbed the deceased thrice in the back and several times on his manhood and thereafter drove him to the hospital for treatment but he did not survive the attack.

According to reports, it was not the first time Maryam would attack Bello violently. She was said to have bitten off part of his ear during an earlier altercation.

Bilyamin, was treated at a hospital before returning home was said to have been advised to leave the house but he refused, only to be brutally attacked the second time.

Condemnations trail Bilyamin’s murder

Human rights activists and women’s rights advocates condemned the death of the 36-year-old allegedly in the hand of his wife. According to them, no human had the right to take another person’s life.

For the Founder, Women Stop Contributing to Violence and Abuse Initiative (WOSCOVAI), Ilavbare Goldfish Rahmatulai, the increase in the crime of passion was a result of a decline in moral values.

In addition, she attributed it to a departure from spiritual belief and the denial of man’s nature.

According to Ramatulai, cheating and extramarital affairs are not part of Nigerian culture but a borrowed western belief. She pointed out that no religion or African tradition forbids a man from taking more than one wife. “As a Muslim woman, I accept that my man might bring another woman home. Marriage or friendship is not meant to be endured. As humans, we all have our ‘enough’ points and for me, if I cannot nip in the bud what I do not want early in the relationship, I can have the good sense to walk away when it becomes a torture to stay on.”

On her part, a child and gender rights activist with Paulash Community Development Initiative, Charity Anaja, it was condemnable that the rate of violence in families and the society at large was increasing.

She advised that people must start looking out for early warning signs in any relationship and find solutions before they get out of hand.

“The murder of this young man would have been avoided if he had reported her little fits of anger. Violence by women, men, child or adult should not be condoned for any reason, and perpetrators should have it at their minds that the law takes its full course on such issue, to serve as a deterrent to others,” she said.


Maryam, who was arraigned on a two-count charge bordering on murder before Justice Yusuf Halilu of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), was sentenced to death or killing her husband.

Delivering judgement the trial judge held that there was circumstantial evidence coupled with the defendant’s testimony and statement to the police that she “fatally” stabbed her husband to death in Abuja on November 19, 2017.

The judge while stating that the offence for which the defendant was convicted said it was based on Section 221 of the Penal Code which imposed a maximum sentence.

“It has been said that thou shall not kill. Whoever kills in cold blood shall die in cold blood,” the judge said.

He added that: “Maryam Sanda should reap what she has sown. It is blood for blood.”

Like Maryam like Chigbor

Similarly, an FCT High Court in Jabi, Abuja, Wednesday, sentenced a 38-year-old man, Eric Chigbor, to death by hanging for killing his wife.

The police charged Chigbor with culpable homicide and Justice Charles Agbaza, who found Chigbor guilty of killing his wife, Jessica, said the prosecution was able to prove with cogent evidence that the convict intentionally killed the deceased.

The judge rejected the defendant’s plea of not guilty, noting that based on the evidence before him, such plea was not plausible and that the prosecution was able to establish all the ingredients of culpable homicide as provided for in section 220 of the penal code.

He said the offence contravened sections 220 of the penal code and is punishable under section 221.

Agbaza in his judgement held that the prosecution had proved its case beyond reasonable doubt.

He said, “In the circumstances, the court finds the defendant guilty of the charge of causing the death of Jessica, on February 3, 2015.

“He is accordingly convicted. Before the court pronounces sentence on the defendant,  and noting the plea of the defence counsel and the response of the prosecution counsel,  note that the plea of allocutus  has no place here, in view of the mandatory nature of the sentence provided under the law,  which the defendant is charge, having been found guilty.

“Consequently, with the mandatory position of the law as provided by Section 221 of the Penal Code Law, the punishment for the offence of culpable homicide which the defendant has been convicted of is hereby sentenced to death.

“This will serve as a deterrent to others because of the rising wave of either wife or husband beating resulting to death in our society. The court does not have discretion to impose any other punishment, much as it may, the law must be fulfilled at all times and in all situations.

“The defendant having been convicted for the offence of culpable homicide under Section 221 of the Penal Code as charge is sentenced to death, the sentence of the court upon you is that you be hanged by the neck until you be dead and may the Lord have mercy on your soul.”

The judge concluded by informing the convict that he had right of appeal to the Appeal Court within 30 days.

While the 30 days grace to appeal the death sentence on Maryam was yet to elapse some women and civil rights activists have surprisingly lined up in her defence while Chigbor’s case has received little or no attention from activists raising questions about gender equity and bias in some quarters.

Activists fault Maryam’s

Addressing a joint press conference on the conviction of Maryam in Abuja, the National Coordinator Human Rights Writers Association Emmanuel Onwubiko, and the Advocacy Manager Society for Civic Education and Gender Equity (SOCEGE), Mary Ogochukwu Aniefuna, maintained that Justice Halilu breached the letters and process of the law in reaching a decision to convict Maryam Sanda on the charge of taking her husband’s life.

The conference stressed that in the law of this nation that the charge of murder or culpable homicide must be proven beyond reasonable doubt, wondering why a judge would trifle with an offence of culpable homicide, which attracts death by choosing to draw conclusions of guilt of Maryam based on hearsay.

“We must point out that no witness testified to seeing Maryam stabbing her husband, no murder weapon was tendered by the police in evidence, no confessional statement was made by Maryam or anyone else for that matter and no two of the six Police witnesses corroborated each other’s testimonies to the effect that Maryam killed Bilyaminu.

“So, what evidence did Justice Halilu rely on to convict Maryam apart from circumstantial evidence? This is not the position of the law. The law is that no person shall be convicted for the offence of murder, which attracts capital punishment based on circumstantial evidence.

“In fact, it was the evidence of all the Police Witnesses that none of them knew exactly what and who killed Bilyaminu. However, PW 1 (Ibrahim Mohammed) and Maryam agreed that she had a serious quarrel / fight with Bilyaminu, whom he took a knife from three times when she wielded it against her husband.

“In his evidence, he did not say on any of the three occasions he took the knives from Maryam, he got cut. No. what does that suggest? It simply means she did not plan to hurt anyone at all, talk more of her husband whom she loved jealously. “Yes, she was jealous, yes, she was angry. But if she did not hurt PW1, who is her husband’s friend when he got the knife from her on three occasions, how could she have planned to hurt her beloved husband?

“The judge committed a fatal blunder when he failed to consider the preliminary objection and rule on it one way or the other before delivering his judgment. We advise them to make this a number one ground of appeal as I believe it is a settled principle in our law that without fair hearing a proceeding is flawed and incurably defective.”

Doctrine of double jeopardy

On her part, Ms Aniefuna of SOCEGE stressed that there was the need for the two little kids of the couple to be put into consideration before passing the judgement.

“We appeal to our common humanity. Let us put these children first in our consideration. When we think of the two little kids of Bilyaminu and Maryam both under two years, all we think of is the doctrine of double jeopardy. We know that in our laws double jeopardy is prohibited.

“The kids have lost their father in an unfortunate circumstance, should they lose their mother too? Can we think about these kids selflessly for a moment? Do we know the psychological trauma and the psychosocial problems that having both parents killed in this manner would have on them,” she queried.

Centre condemns

Also, an activist and Director of Women Advocates Research and Documentation Centre, Mrs. Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi, condemned the court’s ruling.

Though Afolabi agreed that anyone found guilty of such conduct should be punished, she said was condemnable.

“It’s a very unfortunate situation, killing of a spouse whether a man or woman is condemnable and anyone found guilty of such conduct should be punished, as deterrence. The society should have zero tolerance to gender-based violence.

“However, death penalty is condemnable. I think maximum sentence in this instance is not the option given the background of the offence.

“The society should shift from the culture of death penalty; it is no longer acceptable, it has not served the purpose it was meant in the Society,” she said.

Shoddy defence

Speaking in the same vein, another human rights lawyer and Director of Citizens Advocacy for Social and Economic Rights (CASER), Mr. Frank Tietie, said Sanda should not have been given the maximum punishment.

Tietie, who hinged his claim on the possibility of defendant being mentally unstable during the time the crime was committed, blamed the defence team for not doing enough to explore all the possible defences available to the Sanda.

He added that Nigeria must move beyond being a retentionist country in these modern times and realise that death penalty does not solve problems.

According to him, “Mental incapacity is something that should have been brought to the court and with the use of expert witness to prove that she’s not mentally capable of organizing herself in such a state of frustration.

“Firstly, for someone to want to kill her husband is an expression of abnormality; it’s not natural. I suspect that her mental health was something to be questioned, which should have been brought before the court.

“To argue that the woman did not do it is a different thing but to say that she did it, her mind set was not in control of her mental faculty as at the time she did it because of the marital trauma she must have been exposed to which was prolonged and eventually led to pent-up anger and she was also left unattended to by relatives and friends.”

He expressed optimism that Sanda has a window for appeal both at the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court.

He said: “It’s my hope that some new pieces of evidence will be introduced.”

Sentence based on circumstantial evidence

Also, the Director of Communication and Advocacy, Make A Difference Initiative, Lemmy Ughuegbe, faulted the judgement stating that it was based on circumstantial evidence and not the position of the law in Nigeria.

“While it is my position that whoever does a crime must do the time, Maryam Sanda’s conviction was based on circumstantial evidence and that is not the position of the law in Nigeria,” he said.

He added, “No person should be convicted for the offence of murder, which attracts capital punishment based on circumstantial evidence. I sympathise with Justice Yusuf Halilu, who had the unenviable task of making a decision without substantial evidence put before it by the police, who did a very shoddy investigation.

“For instance the absence of a murder weapon, autopsy report, confessional statement and pictures taken of the body of the deceased made it nearly impossible to convict Maryam Sanda on the charge of culpable homicide,” he explained.

“The lack of weapon, confessional statement, and autopsy report, among others seem to have frustrated the Judge into an “error of judgment” when he assumed the role of an Investigating Police Officer by going outside evidence before the court to reach a decision to convict Maryam Sanda,” he added.

Continuing, he quoted the judge saying specifically, in Page 76 of his judgment, “I have a duty thrust upon me to investigate and discover what in any particular case will satisfy the interest and demands of justice.

“The judge had misdirected himself and assumed the position of an IPO whereas the only job he was paid to do was to look at the evidence before him and evaluate them to make a decision. This forms a good ground of appeal and should be explored for the enhancement of our jurisprudence.”

The director, however, said there is a rising mental health challenge in the country and depression is sky high as people hardly tolerate others now. He, therefore, called for more counselling centres in the country.

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