Human Rights Watch has today written to His Holiness Pope John Paul II, requesting him to intervene on behalf of political prisoners during his forthcoming visit to Nigeria.

The Pope made similar appeals on behalf of political prisoners when he visited President Fidel Castro in Cuba recently. "The Nigerian government also holds a large number of political prisoners, and we hope to appeal for their release," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director for Africa at Human Rights Watch. "Conditions in Nigerian prisons can be life-threatening, and, given the intransigence of the Nigerian government, the pope's visit may be the last chance some of them have to come out alive."

Previous international visitors to Nigeria from bodies such as the United States, the Commonwealth, or the African Commission on Human and People's Rights, have had difficulties obtaining permission from the Nigerian government to gain access to detainees. Moreover, although the Nigerian government has promised the U.N. and others to review the cases of those held without charge, no one has in fact been released. Recent months have seen a spate of fresh detentions of journalist, human rights activists, and even military officers alleged to have been involved in a coup attempt.

Human Rights Watch also urged the pope to raise concerns about the transition program by which the military is supposedly returning Nigeria to elected civilian rule, including military control of the electoral commission and restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly.