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A Man in the Valley

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After a two-year trial, a South African court convicts Henry Okah of terrorism sending him to 24 years behind bar, but that seems not to be the end of the story

|  By Olu Ojewale  |  Apr. 8, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT

HENRY Okah, 46, a former leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, MEND, had probably thought he could wriggle out of the trouble. None of the offences for which he was facing trial was committed in South Africa where the trial was taking place. Hence, throughout his trial in the court, for terrorism, he did not show any remorse.

But on Tuesday March 27, the South African court sitting in Johannesburg, sentenced Okah 24 years in prison. Neels Claassen, the judge, found Okah guilty of 13 offences, including the setting off of two bombs in Abuja and Warri, Delta State, on October 1, 2010. MEND claimed responsibility for the attacks, after President Goodluck Jonathan had exonerated the Okah-led group from the attack. He was also convicted for threatening the Nigerian government after his arrest.

[caption id="attachment_5903" align="alignright" width="252"]Goodluck Jonathan Goodluck Jonathan[/caption]

The family said the conviction would be appealed. However, mixed reactions have continued to trail the court's verdict. The MEND said it was disappointed but not surprised by the sentence. In an online statement, Jomo Gbomo, spokesman of the MEND, accused the South African court of allowing itself to be compromised by the "highly-corrupt" Nigerian government.

"The governments of South Africa and Nigeria should realise that this planned sentencing of Henry Okah would, not in any way, shape or form, change our struggle, as we will remain dedicated to our cause, until we achieve full justice and emancipation for the Niger Delta and its people," Gbomo said further. Festus Keyamo, one of Okah's counsels, claimed that his client's conviction breached his fundamental rights to fair hearing and that his conviction was an attempt by the South African authorities to please Nigeria at all costs. "Whilst all Nigerians empathise with those who lost their lives and limbs in the October 1, 2010 bombings, it is wrong to convict anybody for it without due process. Henry has been convicted without due process," Keyamo said. The Nigerian government has refused to react to the conviction. At press time, all government officials refused to answer questions on the issue.

But Asari Dokubo, leader of the Niger Delta Volunteers' Force, NDVF, commended the sentence, saying "justice has been done." Many other Nigerians have been either in support or against the judgement.

In his judgment, Claassen said he refrained from giving Okah a maximum sentence which the offence attracts because the struggle of the MEND "is politically motivated." On why the trial took place in the country, the judge said South Africa being a signatory to the United Nations Treaty on Terrorism Acts, allowed Okah to be tried in South Africa though the events took place in Nigeria. "As a signatory, South Africa is duty bound to adopt the treaty and incorporate it into the laws of South Africa, in other words, domicile the treaty," Claaseen said.

He said it was the responsibility of the court in sentencing the convict to take into account the feelings of the world community and to make South Africa unpalatable for terrorists to operate within the jurisdiction as member of the comity of nations.

The judge said all the 13-count charge for which Okah was convicted of related to three events: "The first event is the March 15, 2010 bomb attack, where two car bombs occurred at the venue of a political gathering which was being attended by the Delta State Governor in Warri, Delta state, where one person died and several others were injured.

"The second event occurred on October 1, 2010, in Abuja, Nigeria's capital city, where two car bombs exploded killing eight people with several others injured. Third event is the threat to the Nigerian government. All these three events were targeted at embarrassing President Goodluck Jonathan."

[caption id="attachment_5902" align="alignright" width="288"]Festus Keyamo Festus Keyamo[/caption]

The judge said that all offences were very serious crimes which must be punished in accordance with the terrorism laws. "The convict, during the trial, had never accepted any responsibility nor shown any remorse in spite of the fact that overwhelming evidence linked him with MEND which claimed responsibilities for the bombings," Claassen said.

He said although MEND was fighting a good cause, "it does not justify any act of violence and terrorism.'' Claassen He said the court was obliged to impose life imprisonment which is the maximum sentence due to the political nature of the struggle, adding that the suspended sentence sought by the defence was inappropriate due to the nature of the crime.

"Having considered that the convict does not have any criminal record both in South Africa and in Nigeria before the struggle in the Niger Delta, I am of the considered view that his clean record both in South Africa and Nigeria should add to his sentence mitigation. Also, the fact that his children will suffer emotionally for his absence if maximum sentence is given is considered in mitigation of his sentence," Claaseen said.

In January, during judgment, Claassen said the state had proved Okah's guilt beyond reasonable doubt, and that his failure to testify meant the evidence against him remained uncontested. But he had denied any involvement, claiming the charges against him were politically motivated. Okah is said to be the first foreign national to be tried for terrorism in South Africa. He has been in custody since his arrest in October 2010, a day after the Abuja bombings.

He has had several brushes with the law. After his arrest in Angola for trafficking in fire arms and explosives, Okah was later extradited to Nigeria in February 2008. On arrival, he was charged with 62 counts of treason, terrorism, illegal possession of firearms and arms trafficking, which on conviction would have earned him death penalty. But he claimed that he was championing the struggle of the Niger Delta people whose land produces Nigerian oil wealth, but the region has little benefit to show for it.

At the private trial, which started in April 2008, Femi Falana, his counsel, claimed that the federal government offered to buy Okah off by granting ownership of several oil blocks, but he refused. His lawyers argued that the secret trial was an infringement of his rights and challenged it before a court of appeal. But the government of late President Umoru Musa Yar'Adua, said having an open trial would jeopardise national security.

In an apparent response, on May 26, 2008, MEND attacked a Royal Dutch Shell pipeline in the Delta region in which 11 Nigerian troops were killed. Although the government denied the attack, an e-mail from MEND said their attacks were retaliations for his arrest.

In July 2009, Okah accepted the amnesty, which government offered to militants willing to lay down their arms, in a bid to end attacks on the oil industry. Some MEND leaders said they would embrace government amnesty if Okah was set free. On July 13, 2009, Mohammed Liman, a federal high court judge, set Okah free saying: "Having reviewed what the attorney general said, you have become a free man at this moment."

On October 2, 2010, Okah was again arrested in Johannesburg, following the October 1, 2010 Nigeria's independence day anniversary attacks that killed 12 people. The killings were said to have been carried out by MEND with the backing of Okah. But he claimed that he knew nothing about any of the bombings.

Okah, who has a permanent residence in South Africa, was known to the police as "an international gun-runner and a major oil bunkerer (thief) in the Niger Delta." With that reputation, some analysts say it would be very difficult for Okah to get any sympathy, even in the appellate court in South Africa.

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