Author(s): Mensah Adinkrah
Type of publication: academic article
Date of publication: May 2016
A recent inspection of the penal codes of several countries and jurisdictions around the world revealed that attempted suicide, also known as “nonfatal suicidal behavior,” failed suicide attempt,” “nonfatal suicidal attempt,” or “parasuicide,” is regarded as a criminal offense in several countries, including Bangladesh, Ghana, India, Kuwait, Nigeria, Pakistan, Rwanda and Singapore. Attempted suicide is also considered a crime in many Islamic countries (Adinkrah, 2013; Khan & Syed, 2011; Musoni, 2011a, 2011b; Sareen & Trivedi, 2009; Za’za, 2011). Incidentally, a large number of the jurisdictions where attempted suicide is illegal comprise former British colonial territories. In each of these countries, existing anti-suicide statutes form part of a corpus of laws imposed on the society during the period of colonial governance. Although the United Kingdom abrogated laws criminalizing and penalizing attempted suicide in 1961, several of its former colonial territories maintain legal codes that continue to criminalize and penalize nonfatal suicidal behaviour, despite their achievement of political independence.
The continued criminalization, prosecution and penalization of attempted suicide in former British colonies raise several provocative questions. For instance, what is the social, moral or legal basis for the retention of anti-suicide laws? How rigorously are these antisuicide laws enforced? What are the commonly prescribed judicial penalties for attempted suicide? What arguments are proffered to justify the push towards the depenalization of anti-suicide laws? Does the legal prohibition of attempted suicide lead to fewer suicide deaths and suicide attempts? Will decriminalization of attempted suicide result in significant increases in the rates of suicidal behaviour in these societies?
Suicide laws in [three] selected countries
This section examines the suicide laws of [three] African countries selected for this study (Gambia, Ghana, and Nigeria).
Attempted suicide is prohibited by Gambian law. The country’s anti-suicide laws are covered under Chapter 21, Sections 205 and 206 of the Gambian Penal Code. Section 205 captioned “Aiding Suicide,” stipulates that “Any person who (1) procures another to kill himself; or (2) counsels another to kill himself and thereby induces him to do so; or (3) aids another in killing himself, is guilty of a felony, and is liable to imprisonment for life.” Section 206 is titled “Attempting Suicide.” It stipulates that “Any person who attempts to kill himself is guilty of a misdemeanor.”
In each of these countries, existing anti-suicide statutes form part of a corpus of laws imposed on the society during the period of colonial governance
In Gambia, a person who survives a suicide attempt is typically reported to law enforcement authorities, arrested, and turned over to the court for prosecution. Upon conviction, they are subjected to judicial sanctions in the form of monetary fines or penal custody. To illustrate, in July 2009, a man stabbed himself three times in the stomach in a bid to kill himself over troubles in his relationship with his girlfriend. Following his treatment at a local hospital, he was apprehended by police and turned over to the court for prosecution. He was convicted of the crime and asked to pay a fine of D3,000 (US$80). In default, he was to serve a six-month prison sentence (Baldeh, 2009).
In Ghana, nonfatal suicidal behavior (attempted suicide) is a crime under the country’s penal code. According to Act 29 section 57, subsection 2 of the Consolidation of Criminal Code (1960), “whoever attempts to commit suicide shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.” Ghanaian law also criminalizes the abetment of suicide. According to Act 29, section 57, subsection 1 of the penal code, “Whoever abets the commission of suicide by any person shall whether or not the suicide be actually committed, be guilty of first degree felony.”
A review of criminal justice records and lay media press reports shows that the country’s anti-suicide laws are stridently enforced. In Ghana today, a person who fails to successfully execute a suicidal act is quickly apprehended by police and placed in jail. He or she is arraigned in court at the nearest court date and prosecuted for the offense of attempted suicide. Upon conviction, which invariably is the case, he is subject to a custodial sentence of variable length from 3 months to two years. Alternatively, he may be asked to pay a heavy fine. In some instances, the convicted defendant receives a combination of a financial penalty and a custodial sanction.
To illustrate, enforcement, in May 2011, a Ghanaian farmer attempted to kill himself but was unsuccessful. Law enforcement officials reported that his motivation for engaging in the act was the social rejection he faced from his village community. While slashing his neck with a knife, he was discovered by a neighbor who intervened, stopped the suicide, and reported him to law enforcement authorities. He was arrested and given medical treatment at a local hospital for his injuries. Upon recovery, he was tried in court, convicted of the charge of attempted suicide, and given a 3-month custodial sentence in a prison facility (Osei, 2011).
Nigerian Federal Law criminalizes nonfatal suicidal behavior. According to the country’s penal code (Nigeria Penal Code, Chapter 27, Section 327), “Any person who attempts to kill himself is guilty of a misdemeanour, and is liable to imprisonment for one year.” Nigerian law also criminalizes abetment of suicide. According to Chapter 27, section 326 of the Nigeria Penal code: “Any person who (1) procures another to kill himself; or (2) counsels another to kill himself and thereby induces him to do so; or (3) aids another in killing himself; is guilty of a felony, and is liable, to imprisonment for life.”
It is notable that Nigerian law concerning attempted suicide specifies therein the amount of punishment associated with violation of the law. This is unlike the Ghanaian attempted suicide law which although stipulates that the crime constitutes a misdemeanor, does not stipulate the length of custodial sentence to be imposed.
Although attempted suicide is a crime in Nigeria, actual prosecutions against those who attempt it appear to be rare. A meticulous internet search did not yield any evidence of criminal prosecution of suicide attempt survivors in Nigeria.
Criminalization or Decriminalization of Attempted Suicide?
Legal prohibition of attempted suicide has been controversial (Adinkrah, 2013; Musoni, 2011a, 2011b). Those who support criminalization of suicide raise a number of objections against the depenalization. First, they argue that taking one’s life is inherently evil and objectionable; suicide, they argue, violates prevailing moral standards, and is a depraved act that should be formally prohibited and punished. It is argued that God provides life and only God has the authority to take life. Second, those who support criminalization argue that the fear of such punishments as financial penalties or imprisonment acts as a deterrent to suicidal acts. They argue that people will desist from engaging in suicidal behaviour if they are aware that an abortive attempt will lead to their apprehension, prosecution, conviction and penalization.
Opponents of decriminalization of current laws on attempted suicide argue that abrogation of current laws will lead to an increase in suicides as suicide ideators and suicidal persons will consider suicide as a legitimate option for dealing with personal problems. Third, it is argued that in a situation where a person has not been deterred by the suicide law and has engaged in a nonfatal suicidal act, the temporary incarceration is necessary to prevent additional attempts or the completion of a suicide. By being temporarily confined in a jail or prison, the individual will not have the ability to carry out the act. While under incarceration, the individual will also have the time to reflect on his misdeed and refrain from ever engaging in another suicidal act.
Those who support decriminalization and depenalization of nonfatal suicidal behaviour argue that suicide is a symptom of treatable mental illness (e.g. depression, schizophrenia), despair and economic and social problems. The argument is that African governments should attend to underlying problems that cause suicidal behaviour rather than prosecuting and penalizing those who engage in nonfatal suicidal behaviour. First, those who support decriminalization and depenalization argue that suicidal persons are in need of such mental health treatment modalities as psychological counseling or psychotherapy or economic and material assistance rather than financial penalties or punitive incarceration. It is further argued that suicide prevention programs are to prevent suicide rather than serving as a specific or individual deterrence targeting those who have attempted and failed at suicide.
Third, it is argued that in countries where an attempt at suicide is a crime, data about rates of suicide attempts are likely to be highly unreliable. Given that attempted suicide is a criminal offense, there is substantial under-reporting of nonfatal suicidal acts and persons who engage in non-medically serious suicide attempts are unlikely to come to the attention of the authorities. At-risk individuals will not receive the requisite psychological counseling, medical care or material assistance necessary to prevent a recurrence of suicide attempts. This hinders the ability of suicidologists to accurately determine suicide risk and protective factors, thereby hampering the proper design and implementation of effective suicide prevention programs.
Discussion and Conclusion
This article has provided a broad overview of suicide laws in [three] African countries. Among other things, the article has explored the key legal ingredients of the anti-suicide laws for these countries, revealing a number of findings through their analysis. First, there are substantial similarities in the laws of the countries under study, in many instances, with identical legal language. Second, aiding or abetting suicide is a crime in all [three] countries.
African governments should attend to underlying problems that cause suicidal behaviour rather than prosecuting and penalizing those who engage in nonfatal suicidal behaviour
Fourth, with the notable exception of Nigeria, there is vigorous prosecution of suicide attempt survivors in all the countries where suicide attempt is proscribed by law; persons who attempt suicide but fail are subjected to criminal charges under current law, are prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to monetary fines or short to moderate periods of incarceration from 3 months to 3 years.
According to local and international data, fatal and nonfatal suicide rates in most African countries are relatively low compared with rates in Western industrialized countries (Adinkrah, 2011a, 2011b; Windfuhr & Kapur, 2011). It is however, unclear whether the lower rates are linked to the threat of judicial sanctions for failure to complete a suicidal act.
Existing data suggest that for most African countries, other factors may be important in explaining low suicide mortality and attempted suicide rates, including ubiquitous antisuicide religious beliefs and mortuary practices that discourage self-inflicted deaths (Adinkrah, 2015; Vaughan, 2010), availability of social support to despairing individuals, limited access to potentially lethal methods of suicide such as firearms, sleeping pills, etc. Also, because attempted suicide is illegal, it is likely to be under-reported and underrecorded. Generally, people may be unwilling to see a suicidal relative, friend or neighbour become the subject of criminal prosecution for suicidal behaviour.
In recent years, a number of concerned individuals and groups have agitated for the repeal of anti-suicide laws (Adinkrah, 2013). Most of the individuals advocating decriminalization are professional psychiatrists and other mental health professionals as well as members of nongovernmental agencies working in the field of suicide prevention. They argue that persons who attempt suicide need psychological counseling, medical help or material assistance rather than judicial punishment.
For anti-suicide laws to have the anticipated deterrent effect, it is essential that citizens be aware of the illegality of attempted suicide. To date, no study has been done to determine the extent to which citizens are aware of anti-suicide statutes. This means it is not known how many suicidal persons have been constrained from carrying out a suicidal act because of their awareness of extant legislation that criminalizes suicidal behaviour.
Because attempted suicide is illegal, it is likely to be under-reported and underrecorded
One fact about attempted suicides, however, appears unequivocal. Research shows that persons who attempt suicide are at elevated risk of fatal suicide. Attempted suicide is a good predictor of repeat self-harm and suicide. Those who have attempted suicide are at heightened risk of further suicidal behaviour in the future. Suicidologists in Africa should focus on discovering patterns of suicide and the social forces that produce suicidal behaviour so that they can formulate intervention strategies for a reduction in the suicide rate. Future studies should focus on determining the efficacy of anti-suicide legislation and criminal prosecution in deterring suicide attempts. It needs to be determined whether arrest, court experience, and judicial sanctions do effectively deter future suicidal behaviour. This is necessary if we are to achieve a better understanding of suicide.
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