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Omoyele Sowore, pro-democracy activist and founder of Sahara Reporters news agency.    © 2016 Mohamed Nanabhay (via Wikimedia)
(Abuja) – The Nigerian authorities are holding Omoleye Sowore, a former presidential candidate and democracy activist, in detention despite a November 6, 2019 bail order by an Abuja Federal High Court. The Department of State Security Services (DSS) should promptly release him.

Security officials arrested Sowore, publisher of the New York-based Nigeria news website Sahara Reporters, in August, accusing him of planning an insurrection aimed at a forceful takeover of government through his calls for nationwide protests tagged “Revolution Now.”

“Sowore’s continued detention despite the court order is a flagrant disregard of the rule of law and an affront to justice by the state security services, “said Anietie Ewang, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “They should provide a legal basis for keeping him in detention or release him immediately.”

Following Sowore’s arrest, a Federal High Court in Abuja ordered him detained for a renewable 45-day period to allow the authorities to carry out further investigations. Sowore was charged with treason, cybercrime, and money laundering offenses in September and was granted bail pending trial in October, under terms his lawyer described as stringent. The terms were laterchanged by the court, which issued an order for his release on November 6 after his lawyers satisfied the conditions.

State Security Services had also disregarded a previous court order for his release, before charges were brought against him in September. In a statement issued on November 8, the agency alleged that for reasons of accountability Sowore could only be released into a responsible person’s custody.

In response, on November 10 and 12, numerous activists turned up at the security agency’s office in Abuja where Sowore is being held to protest and to ask officials to release him to their custody. Human Rights Watch interviewed three people who witnessed or participated in the protests. During the November 12 protests, witnesses alleged, DSS officials opened fire to disperse the crowd. Video footage circulating online appears to show protesters with placards running away with sounds of gunshots in the background.

Deji Adeyanju, one of the activists who led the protest, said that he and other protesters were peacefully calling for Sowore’s release outside the agency’s headquarters when officials began shooting and using pepper spray. He said that officials beat up several protesters, seized about four phones, and slashed the tires of protesters’ vehicles.

Oludare Richards, a journalist with the Nigerian Guardian Newspapers, said that he was badly beaten after he tried to intervene as security officials harassed a well-known activist. “I showed the DSS officers my identity card, stating clearly that I was a journalist, but that did not stop them from turning on me,” Richards said. “One officer began beating me all over my body with a baton. Two others later joined him using the butt of their guns to hit the back of my head. I was bleeding badly and suffered trauma to my head; it even affected my speech.”

The agency issued a statement denying that its officers shot at protesters. It said it has not released Sowore because qualified people have not come to receive him.

Sowore is reported to have begun a hunger strike to protest his continued detention. There have been rallies for his release in New Jersey, in the United States where he lives with his family, and Karen Bass, a member of the US Congress from California, has called for his release.

Sowore’s arrest is one of several recent arrests and detentions of journalists and activists in Nigeria, suggesting a disturbing trend toward repression of freedom of expression. The authorities have relied on laws, including the Terrorism Prevention Amendment Act of 2015 and the Cybercrime Act of 2015, to bring criminal charges against people for conduct or publications that appear to criticize the authorities.

In August, Agba Jalingo, a journalist, was charged before a Federal High Court in Cross River State with treason, terrorism, and disturbance of public peace after an article of his alleging government corruption was published in July.

In 2018, an Abuja Magistrate court conditionally released Jones Abiri, a journalist and publisher of the Weekly Source newspaper in Yenegoa, Bayelsa State, after a prominent social media campaign for his release. He had been held for more than two years by the security agency, allegedly for a republishing a controversial article in the Weekly Source. Abiri was rearrested in May 2019 on charges of terrorism, fraud, and economic sabotage.

“The Nigerian authorities need to end any harassment and ensure that journalists and activists can carry out their activities without fear,” Ewang said. “The government should investigate abuses against protesters by the security agency and ensure compliance with the court order for Sowore’s release.”

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