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(Abuja) – Several recent arrests and detentions of journalists and activists in Nigeria suggest a disturbing trend toward repression of freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said today. In one case, it was revealed that a journalist had been held incommunicado for nearly two years, and in another, an activist said he was tortured.

Protesters from the Islamic Movement of Nigeria carry banners during a march calling for the release of their leader, Ibrahim Zakzaky, and his wife, Zeenatudeen, in the northern Nigerian city of Kano, August 11, 2016. © 2016 Getty Images

“Throwing reporters in jail for doing their job of informing the public sends a chilling message to journalists in Nigeria,” said Anietie Ewang, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Nigerian authorities need to end any harassment and ensure that members of the press can operate without fear.”

On August 16, 2018, an Abuja Magistrate court conditionally released Jones Abiri, a journalist and publisher of Weekly Source Newspaper in Yenegoa, Bayelsa State. He had been held for more than two years after his July 26, 2016 arrest by State Security Service agents. A statement by the security agency after his arrest accused Abiri of leading the Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force, a group allegedly furthering separatist tendencies in the Niger Delta. A Committee to Protect Journalists report said, however, his family believed his arrest was prompted by a controversial article republished by the Weekly Source.

Abiri was held incommunicado at an undisclosed location, despite efforts of family, lawyers, and the Nigerian Union of Journalists to reach him. Asocial media campaign and a lawsuit for his release filed on July 3, 2018 put pressure on the security service to finally charge and produce him before an Abuja Magistrate court on August 2, where he faced a charge of criminal intimidation. His trial will begin on September 5, when the prosecution must substantiate the charges or the case will be dropped.

In another recent case, the Police Special Anti-Robbery Squad arrested and detained a Premium Times journalist, Samuel Ogundipe, on August 14. Premium Times reported he was arrested for refusing to disclose his source for his August 9 article about a report by the police inspector general, Ibrahim Idris, to acting president Yemi Osinbajo. The police said Ogundipe was arrested and charged for theft and unlawful possession of restricted and classified documents. He was conditionally released on August 17, but his trial is set to begin on August 23.

In January 2017,the police raided the Premium Times office in Abuja and arrested the publisher, Dapo Olorunyomi, and the judiciary correspondent, Evelyn Okakwu. They were released after a few hours. The arrest was allegedly carried out based on a complaint filed by the chief of army staff, General Tukur Buratai, after Premium Times published damning reports alleging corruption and human rights violations by the military.

State Security agencies, including the State Security Service and the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, have previously been implicated in abuse of power and human rights violations across the country, including illegal arrests, detention, and torture. In a 2010 report, Human Rights Watch documented abuses ranging from arbitrary arrest and unlawful detentionto threats and acts of violence, including physical and sexual assault, torture, and even extrajudicial killings. Human Rights Watch continues to document similar allegations against the police. 

A 38-year-old Niger Delta activist, whose name is withheld for his protection, described to Human Rights Watch torture he said he suffered while in State Security Service detention for 15 months. He said he was arrested on August 2, 2016 in Warri, Delta state in the Niger Delta, by six men “gestapo style” and flown to Abuja on a presidential jet. He said he was beaten, strapped to a bench face up for hours in the sun, and given shocks to his genitals to force a false confession of involvement with a militant group known as the Niger Delta Avengers.

Even now, several months after his release without charge or trial, he continues to suffer terrible pain from the injuries he suffered during torture. “I am receiving regular medical treatment for the severe pains I still suffer in my private parts,” he said.

Osinbajo dismissed Lawal Daura, the State Security Service director general, on August 7, after masked officials of the agency sealed up the National Assembly, preventing federal legislators from entering. The National Human Rights Commission reported that in the three years of Daura’s leadership, the agency repeatedly violated rights, including carrying out unlawful arrests, prolonged detention without trial, and torture of detainees.

Despite court orders, the agency has refused to release a former national security adviser, retired Colonel Sambo Dasuki, as well as the Shia Islamic Movement of Nigeria leader, Sheik Ibrahim El Zakzaky and his wife, Ibraheemat, all of whom have been in detention without trial since 2015. 

Osinbajo also recently ordered the police inspector general to overhaul the management and activities of the police special unit, following a social media campaign against abuses by the squad.

“Firing Lawal Daura is not enough to transform the abusive State Security Service into a rights-respecting institution, without overhauling the systems that make abuse possible,” Ewang said. “Nigerian authorities should take immediate steps to end the pervasive atmosphere of fear and intimidation by security agencies. Dropping all charges against Jones Abiri and Samuel Ogundipe for exercising free expression is a good place to start.”

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