The presumption of innocence, fairness and the rights of offenders

To commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights UNODC is running a series of articles over the course of the year connecting our work in Nigeria to these universal principles.


“Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which [they have] had all the guarantees necessary for [their] defence”

“No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.”

Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights articulates several critical elements of the rule of law, in relation to suspects and convicts of criminal offences. Article 11.1 explicitly captures the presumption of innocence and the fundamental rights and legal protections to be afforded to suspects. Article 11.2 prohibits the application of retroactive laws and discourages the imposition of disproportionately hefty sentences for crimes committed.

Dogo, a drug user, was charged with the offence of aiding and abetting the sale of two (2) grams of cocaine, in 2021. In the absence of legal representation and while awaiting trial, Dogo was detained and placed in the custody of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) for almost 10 months. In detention, he was subjected to poor living conditions and denied the necessary medical attention needed to treat the drug withdrawals that he suffered.

Funmilayo Bamigboye, a lawyer who frequently represents suspects of drug-related offences, learnt about Dogo’s case during a chance meeting with Dogo’s wife at the NDLEA holding cell. Alarmed that Dogo had not been provided with legal representation, Funmilayo offered pro-bono legal services to Dogo, as his defense counsel.

Funmilayo is a member of the Legal Advocacy Response to Drugs Initiative (LARDI), a network of 127 legal practitioners, established in 2018. With support from the Response to Drugs and Related Organized Crime in Nigeria project, funded by the European Union and implemented by UNODC, LARDI lawyers across Nigeria have been providing pro-bono legal services to suspects of drug-related offences, as well as drug users and their families. The provision of such legal representation operationalizes Article 11, by alleviating structural barriers to access to justice – such as poverty and other stigmas associated with drug use – for suspects and detainees of drug related offences. Through the efforts of LARDI, the rights of suspects like Dogo, are protected.

In December 2022, after undergoing counselling on the harmful effects of drug use, Dogo was released from NDLEA custody and arraigned before the Federal High Court. He pleaded guilty to the charges against him and was convicted and sentenced to 14 months imprisonment. The prescribed punishment for the offence of aiding and abetting the sale of cocaine, is a maximum prison sentence of 25 years. Dogo’s sentence indicates that the presiding judge exercised their sentencing discretion in imposing a sentence of less than 10% of the prescribed maximum period for imprisonment.

Further observing Article 11, the project lent its support to the Federal High Court, to develop and adopt the Federal High Court Sentencing Guidelines on Drugs and Related Offences. The guidelines establish a framework for judges to consider drug quantity thresholds, as well as other aggravating and mitigating factors in sentencing convicts of drug related offences.  The Sentencing Guidelines encourage the imposition of sentences proportionate to the magnitude of offences and uniformity in punishment, thereby ensuring that the rule of law is upheld.

Protecting the rights of suspects of serious crimes, including drug related offences, is a critical component of UNODC’s Strategic Vision for Nigeria, which in turn is an apposite example of how the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted seventy-five years ago, continue to guide the UN’s work in the field to this day.