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Violence Against Nigerian Political Activist
(New York, March 29, 2003) A recent attack on the home of a political activist in Nigeria highlights the need for additional efforts to protect government critics in the crucial pre-election period, Human Rights Watch said today.

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“Threats and intimidation against political activists are another worrying sign of the level of political violence in the country.”

Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa division at Human Rights Watch

On March 22, an armed group of eight men broke into the Port Harcourt home of Ledum Mitee, searching for him unsuccessfully. Mitee is president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) and has been a strong critic of the Rivers State government.

An eyewitness reported to Human Rights Watch that in the early morning of Saturday, March 22, eight men armed with sophisticated rifles scaled the outer fence of Mitee’s residential compound and entered the home by climbing a ladder and entering through an upstairs door. The men, who were partially masked, gathered the seven occupants of the home at gunpoint and demanded to be led to Ledum Mitee. When it was explained that Mitee was traveling out of the country, the intruders searched through the whole house, then departed, warning that they would return. They took nothing from the home except for a cellular telephone and did not harm any of the occupants. Mitee had originally planned to return from a trip abroad the day before this incident.

“Threats and intimidation against political activists are another worrying sign of the level of political violence in the country,” said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “This comes on top of political assassinations and fighting between supporters of different political factions, which have led to scores of deaths across Nigeria in the last few months.”

Ledum Mitee and at least one other MOSOP leader had previously received threats, including phone calls warning them to “steer clear” of their political positions, and there were indications that the security services were closely watching their activities. On the evening of March 23, Legborsi Saro Pyagbara, programme officer at MOSOP, was arrested and questioned by the police at Lagos Airport as he was preparing to travel to London, on his way to attend the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva. The police asked him why MOSOP had decided to send him out of the country at this time, and what MOSOP hoped to achieve. He was released after about four hours.

MOSOP, formerly led by late Ken Saro-Wiwa, promotes the rights of the minority Ogoni ethnic group in the oil-producing Niger Delta. It has frequently criticized the Rivers State government headed by Governor Peter Odili of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Nigeria’s ruling party, accusing it of systematically using violence for political ends among other abuses. MOSOP has also criticized the federal government and police for failing to control political violence.

Rivers State is the home state of late Marshall Harry, vice chairman for the south-south zone of Nigeria’s main opposition party, the All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP), who was murdered in his residence in the federal capital, Abuja, on March 5.

Mitee was interviewed on the radio on March 8, just a few days after the killing of Marshall Harry, criticizing the state government’s use of violence. MOSOP had also organized meetings in Ogoniland in February, to which local candidates from all parties were invited to present their platforms, and urged voters not to support candidates who were not credible or who had used political violence in the past.

Human Rights Watch urged the federal government and police to urgently investigate this incident and all cases of political violence, and to bring the perpetrators to justice regardless of their political affiliation.

“We are asking the authorities to ensure the safety of activists and to respect the right of all Nigerians to express their views without fear of violence,” said Takirambudde.