Guilty as Charged

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Henry Okah
Henry Okah

A South African court finds Henry Okah, leader of MEND, guilty of a 13-count charge of acts of terrorism in Nigeria

|  By Ishaya Ibrahim  |  Feb. 4, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT

HENRY Okah, the 48-year-old, believed to be the leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, MEND, has become the first person convicted for acts of terrorism allegedly carried out by MEND. A South African court found him guilty of 13-count charges bordering on terrorism. He would be sentenced on January 31.

But Okah has said he is a victim of political intrigues and that he had never been a leader of MEND but just its sympathiser. However, one fact that has remained incontrovertible is that MEND has claimed responsibilities for many attacks from 2006 to 2009 on oil companies which included sabotage, guerilla warfare and kidnapping of foreign oil workers. For the crime which Okah was convicted, that is, the bombing carried out around Eagles Square on October 1, 2010, during the anniversary of Nigeria’s 50th independence, MEND had claimed responsibility for it.

Festus Keyamo
Festus Keyamo

But one man who believes that the judgment of the South African court is a political manipulation is Festus Keyamo, a Lagos-based lawyer. In a statement shortly after the ruling, he said the decision of the South African court was a political appeasement to Nigeria.  Keyamo, who is also defending Charles Okah, younger brother to Okah, for similar charges in Nigeria, said he has been actively involved in coordinating the trials both in South Africa and in Nigeria.

According to him, the fundamental flaw in the trial is that Henry Okah was not given adequate facilities and the opportunity to defend himself. “This is because after the prosecution closed its case in South Africa, the defence attorneys and my Chambers here in Abuja, tried frantically to summon the witnesses of Henry Okah who are based here in Nigeria to testify on his behalf. These witnesses include some government officials. In this regard, we wrote to the attorney-general of the federation, who replied and directed that Henry’s counsel in South Africa apply to the court there for an order to secure the legal assistance of the attorney-general of Nigeria. This was only two weeks ago”, he said

He argued that without giving Okah’s counsel in South Africa adequate time and facilities to follow the directives of the attorney general, AG, the South African court foreclosed his opportunity to call witnesses and rushed to convict him. “This is a breach of his fundamental right to fair hearing and an obvious attempt by the South African authorities to please Nigeria at all cost. That is why the judgment is nothing but political”, Keyamo said.

The perceived politicisation of Okah’s trial gained impetus in October 2010, shortly after the bomb explosion in Abuja.  Then, Okah had told Aljazeera network that he was arrested because he refused to play ball with the presidency when it told him to tell MEND to retract a statement claiming responsibility for the deadly attacks in Abuja. “On Saturday morning, just a day after the attack, a very close associate of President Jonathan called me and explained to me that there had been a bombing in Nigeria and that President Jonathan wanted me to reach out to the group, MEND, and get them to retract the earlier statement they had issued claiming the attacks. They wanted to blame the attacks on northerners who are trying to fight against him (Jonathan) to come back as president and if this was done, I was not going to have any problems with the South African government. I declined to do this and a few hours later, I was arrested. It was based on their belief that I was going to do that that Jonathan issued a statement saying that MEND did not carry out the attack”, Okah said.

But the South African court said Okah was guilty of the 13 terrorism charges, including conspiracy to commit terrorism and bombings on October 1 2010. The judge said:  “I have come to the conclusion that the state had proved beyond reasonable doubt the guilt of the accused,” Judge Nels Claassen said.

On January 25, this year, Edmund Ebiware was also convicted for the October 1 bombing. He was sentenced to life imprisonment by a federal high court in Abuja presided by Justice Gabriel Kolawole. Ebiware was found guilty of complicity in the bombing which killed 12 Nigerians.

President Jonathan has hailed the judgment from Geneva, Switzerland, where he was attending a world economic summit last week. He said: “Only yesterday {January 21}, one of our brothers, Henry Okah, was jailed in South Africa. If somebody commits a crime, we will make sure we get him even if it takes one month or 10 years”, the president said.

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