MRA, Coalition Call for Release of Publisher Held Incommunicado for 2 Years Without Charge

  • Human Rights Lawyer Femi Falana Sues DSS Over Detention
Jones Abiri
Jones Abiri

Media Rights Agenda (MRA) and the Coalition for Whistleblower Protection and Press Freedom (CWPPF) have asked the Nigerian Government to immediately release Mr. Jones Abiri, a journalist and publisher of the Weekly Source, a community tabloid, who was arrested two years ago and has been detained incommunicado since then without charge

July 2018 marks the second anniversary of the arrest and detention of Mr. Abiri, who was arrested by about a dozen heavily armed agents of the Department of State Security (DSS), Nigeria’s intelligence agency, on July 21, 2016 outside his office in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State, without charge and has not been seen or heard from since he was taken away in handcuffs on that day. His computer and documents were confiscated from his office after hours-long search.

Since the time of his arrest, the DSS has frustrated efforts by Mr. Abiri’s family, lawyers, journalists and civil society actors to get any information on him and has been keeping him incommunicado.

The Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda (MRA), Mr. Edetaen Ojo, condemned the arrest and detention of Mr. Abiri, arguing that “although the DSS claimed two days after Mr. Abiri’s arrest that he is a militant and the leader of the Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force which it has accused of furthering separatist tendencies in connivance with other criminal gangs in the Niger Delta region, it has failed to produce or provide any evidence to justify this claim.”

Mr. Ojo said: “The DSS has not presented whatever information or evidence it has to a properly constituted court of law in accordance with the safeguards stipulated by the Nigerian Constitution, where anyone is accused of an offence, and has given no opportunity to Mr. Abiri to defend himself against these allegations, thereby violating his constitutional right to a fair hearing. In effect, the DSS has constituted itself into the accuser, the prosecutor, the judge and the executioner.  Such lack of transparency even in the context of counter-terrorism can only undermine the effectiveness of such counter-terrorism efforts.”

According to him, “Even if the claims by the DSS were true, there can be no justification for holding Mr. Abiri without charge or trial for two years. It is regrettable that this Government is using the excuse of Nigeria’s insurgency problem to violate the rights of citizens because at the end of the day, its counter-insurgency efforts will lose public support and legitimacy. It is now well-established by so many examples and experiences that the greatest disservice that a government can do to its own counter-terrorism efforts is using it for political purposes because nothing undermines counter-terrorism more than using counter-terrorism as an excuse to suppress critical voices and dissenting opinions”.

Mr. Femi Falana, a human rights lawyer on his part has filed a fundamental human rights enforcement suit at the Federal High Court in Abuja on behalf of Jones seeking among other prayers an order directing the DSS to pay the journalist N200m in damages for the illegal violation of his fundamental rights.

Mr. Falana filed the suit as the CWPPF called for the immediate release of Mr. Abiri in a statement endorsed by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ), the International Press Centre (IPC), Media Rights Agenda, the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ), Premium Times newspaper,  The Cable newspaper,  the African Centre for Media and Information Literacy (AFRICMIL), Daily Trust newspaper, Order Paper,  Paradigm Initiative, the Nigerian Union of Journalist (NUJ), and Human and Environmental Development Agenda (HEDA).

The suit prayed the court to make a declaration that Jones’ detention in Abuja without access to his family members, friends and medical doctors since his arrest on July 21, 2016 “is illegal and unconstitutional”.

The lawyer argued that Jones’ detention violates his fundamental rights, including his rights to personal liberty, dignity of person, fair hearing, health and association guaranteed by sections 34, 35 and 40 of the Constitution as well as Articles 11 and 16 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act.

In an affidavit filed in support of the suit, a litigation clerk in Falana’s law firm, Paul Ochayi, said Jones was arrested without warrant by “the armed agents” of the DSS in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State on July 21, 2016 and that there is no court order which authorised the detention of the journalist adding that the DSS has not charged him to any court.

The supporting affidavit also stated that the DSS agents took Jones from Yenogoa to Abuja on July 21, 2016 and have since then held him incommunicado have failed to charge him with any offence.

It also said that Abiri who has aged parents, wife and children has not committed any offence known to law to warrant his “continuous, unwarranted and illegal detention”.

John Angese, chairman of the Nigeria Union of Journalists in Bayelsa State who witnessed Jones’ arrest, disclosed that the DSS held people to ransom at gun point, searched the journalist’s office and confiscated his computer and documents as well as sealed his office, and took him in handcuff into custody. He added: “I was personally there when he was taken away. I tried to ask what was the problem but I was rebuffed with their guns. I was threatened to be shot if I went any closer. Everybody was scared.”

Other eyewitnesses said the DSS agents stormed the office of Weekly Source newspaper at 288 Chief Melford Okilo Expressway, Yenagoa in three cars and without a warrant, handcuffed him, raided his office, and took him into custody.

Two days later, the DSS released a statement claiming that Jones is a militant named General Akotebe Darikoro, operating under the pseudonym, General Kill and Bury and that he is the leader of the Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force, “which has been furthering separatist tendencies in connivance with other criminal gangs in the Niger Delta region”.

The DSS also claimed Jones “confessed and owned up” to vandalising and bombing oil pipelines belonging to the international oil companies Agip and Shell in July 2016; sending threat messages to management of both oil companies demanding a total of N750 million payment; threatening to launch missile attacks against the Presidential Villa and selected targets in Abuja; and masterminding the rumour in 2016 that the military was planning a coup against President Muhammadu Buhari.

Weekly Source publishes stories culled from online sources and national newspapers and in its last edition dated July 10, 2016 published as its lead a story originally published by the online medium, titled “Rumble In The Military: Inside The Coup Plot Story… Militants’ Warning Alters Plot.”

The story alleged that top military officers working with politicians had approached the Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force (JNDLF) militant group to intensify bombing pipelines as a justification to overthrow President Buhari, an allegation which the military denied.

The same edition of Weekly Source also published another story sourced from the sam alleging that some of President Buhari’s loyalists, including the Director-General of the SSS, were blocking investigations into an oil and gas company implicated by the anti-graft Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) of siphoning billions of dollars in fraudulent oil deals. The story claimed that the company donated heavily towards President Buhari’s 2015 presidential campaign through the loyalists.

In August 2016, Mr. Abiri’s family filed a fundamental rights enforcement lawsuit against the DSS, asking the Bayelsa State High Court to declare his arrest and continued detention without trial unconstitutional, unlawful, illegal, null and void, and to order the agency to release him on bail, and direct it to open Weekly Source newspaper’s office.

In its response, the DSS tendered a confessional statement allegedly written and signed by the journalist on the day of his arrest admitting to “being the founder, coordinator and spokesperson” of the militant group and “directing his foot soldiers (still at large) to carry out bombings of oil pipelines” and blackmailing oil companies for money with threats of further bombings.

In his ruling on September 7, 2016, the Bayelsa State High Court judge, Nayai Aganaba, ordered the DSS to reopen the office of Weekly Source newspaper but ruled that the arrest and continued detention of Jones by the DSS was lawful.

Justice Aganaba ruled that: “The offence of terrorism and related offences for which [Mr Abiri] was arrested and detained is a capital offence by virtue of Section 1 (2) under paragraph (h) of the Terrorism Prevention Amendment Act 2013 and by virtue of Section 35 (7) of the 1999 Constitution, the arrest and detention of [Mr Abiri] by the [SSS] is therefore not unlawful.”

The DSS also swore on oath that the “seeming delay in charging [him] to court” was due to “ongoing efforts to arrest other members of the militant group” as well as results of “scientific analysis of evidence” still been awaited. The agency promised “to ensure an expedited conclusion of investigation on the case and to charge him and his accomplices to court without undue delay”.

In its statement, the CWPPF contended “that regardless of the offence with which Mr. Abiri may subsequently be charged, there can be no justification for his detention without trial for two years”, adding that “his detention without a court order is a flagrant violation of the Constitution and an affront to the rule of law.”

Quoting news reports, the Coalition said on July 21, 2016, nine armed agents of the State Security Service (SSS), Nigeria’s domestic intelligence agency also commonly known as the DSS, arrested Mr. Abiri, in front of his office in Yenogoa, during which they searched the office and confiscated various documents.

The DSS subsequently emailed a statement to Nigerian journalists on July 23, 2016 accusing Mr. Abiri of being the leader of the separatist group Joint Revolutionary Council of the Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force and claimed that he  had confessed to bombing oil pipelines, planning attacks on Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, sending threatening messages to international oil companies, as well as being the mastermind of a hoax military coup against President Muhammadu Buhari.

These allegations were shocking to friends and families of Mr. Abiri; they claim repeatedly that he has no connections to militancy in the Niger Delta.

The Coalition noted that when the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) contacted the DSS in July and November 2016, the officers who answered the telephone calls said they were not authorized to speak about Mr. Jones Abiri’s case.

It’s also quoted Mr. Abdulwaheed Odusile, president of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) as well as of the Federation of African Journalists (FAJ) as telling the CPJ on October 25, 2017 that: “We don’t know where he is and we don’t know what he has been charged for.”

The Coalition said it supports a fundamental human rights enforcement suit filed before the Federal High Court in Abuja on behalf of Mr Abiri by human rights lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN), in which he is contending that his being held in the custody of the DSS for about two years amounts to an illegal violation of his fundamental human rights.

The suit, filed on July 4, 2018, is praying the court to declare that the detention of the journalist in Abuja without access to his family members, friends and medical doctors since his arrest on July 21, 2016 “is illegal and unconstitutional” and claiming N200m in damages..

Mr. Falana (SAN) is hinging his claim on the argument that the detention “violates” the applicant’s fundamental rights” guaranteed by Sections 34, 35 and 40 of the Constitution as well as Articles 11 and 16 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act.

The Coalition insisted that Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, was not telling the truth when he claimed  at the opening of the FAJ Congress on 29 April 2018, while delivering a speech on behalf of President Muhammadu Buhari, thus: “I can report to this congress that not a single journalist is being detained or harassed in Nigeria today. This government is not a threat to the media, and it is not about to stifle press freedom or deny anyone his or her constitutionally guaranteed rights.”

It contended that even if Mr. Abiri had committed murder or treason, of which there is no record of such, he has a right to fair hearing and a trial.

The Coalition said: “As an organization that has its mandate based on good governance, anti-corruption as well as an institution that fiercely fights for the protection of basic human rights of its citizens, whistleblowers and press freedom, we denounce the inadequate safety for journalists in Nigeria.  Journalists are imprisoned for the wrong reasons and journalists are harassed for speaking out against certain government policies.”

It called on “ the Executive, the Judiciary and the Legislature to set up a national mechanism for the safety of journalists and to report on the policies of protection, prevention and justice in place to eradicate impunity for attacks against journalists.”

The Coalition vowed to continue to champion the case of Mr. Abiri until the right thing is done by the government, warning that “if certain elites assume, in their disdain for accountability, that  using the state security machinery to bully the press, as in this particular case will intimidate the media from holding the government accountable, then they are mistaken.”