• HRW accuses FG of torturing journalists
By Martins Ifijeh in Lagos and Emmanuel Addeh in Yenagoa
A Bayelsa State-based journalist, who was recently released by the Department of State Service (DSS) after two years in detention, Mr. Jones Abiri, yesterday alleged that he was blindfolded while in the custody of the secret police and denied participating in militant activities in the Niger Delta area.
This is coming as the Human Rights Watch (HRW) yesterday accused the federal government of harassing and torturing journalists, saying the several detentions of members of the press and activists suggest a disturbing trend towards repression of freedom of expression.
Abiri, who is the publisher of ‘Weekly Source’, a local newspaper in the state, recounted his ordeals in the custody of DSS where he was held without being charged to court.
He alleged that he was also blindfolded by the secret police.
The journalist was finally brought before an Abuja court by the DSS following local and international pressure mounted by the media and civil society organisations.
“If l were a militant, Niger Delta will know that l am a militant. But l am not a militant. If I were a militant, l wouldn’t have owned an office for my newspaper work. I should have been in the creek. I have already filed a suit at the Federal High Court in Abuja to enforce my fundamental human rights,” he said.
Recalling the ill-treatment meted on him by the DSS, Abiri, who was received at the Secretariat of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) by journalists and leadership of the Civil Liberty Organisation (CLO), said he was flown to Abuja with his face covered after spending seven days in detention in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State.
He said he was kept incommunicado in an underground DSS cell in Abuja and denied access to medical treatment for about two years.
“I was arrested on July 21, 2016, in my office at about 3:23 p.m. About 12 armed men came to my office and they came with a document-a search warrant that my office was under investigations.
“When l perused the search warrant, l saw that it was signed by one Magistrate Lucky. I allowed them and they searched my office. At the end of the search, they found nothing. They handcuffed me, took my phones, laptops and other things. Things unconnected to my arrest were also taken. All my pay slips and other bank information were taken.
“They whisked me away to the state command. I gave my statement and after spending seven days in Yenagoa, they took me to Abuja. Initially, l didn’t know where l was going. My eyes were blindfolded. Since that time, l was not given the grace and opportunity to see my wife, my children, sisters, brothers and friends.
“My lawyers were denied access to me. I was in an underground cell, where, when the light went off, you would not see the next person. I was also denied medical care. I thank God that the CLO and other rights organisation took up the matter, and today, l am out of detention.
“If not because of the voice of the media and the CLO, DSS wouldn’t have taken me to court. I was given one-count charge that l sent threat messages to Agip Nigeria Limited and Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) demanding money.
“But l said l knew nothing about that because l had no connection with oil companies. But they insisted l was the one. But l kept holding onto my creator. Now the matter is in court,” he explained.
Abiri expressed gratitude to the media, human rights activists; Press Unlimited, an organisation in The Netherlands; environmental activists, Alagoa Morris and Peter Ikanga, for working for his freedom.
In his comments, Bayelsa State Chairman, CLO, Chief Nengi James, thanked all the stakeholders, who contributed to the release of Abiri.
He, however, asked security agencies especially the DSS to stop persecution of the Ijaw and Niger Delta people.
James lamented that over 50 persons from the region were being held in detention without trial and called on the DSS to follow the due process of law and grant them freedom.
Meanwhile, the HRW yesterday accused the Nigerian government of harassing and torturing journalists, saying the several detentions of members of the press and activists suggest a disturbing trend towards repression of freedom of expression.
The HRW Nigeria Researcher, HRW, Aniete Ewang, said in statement that in one case, a journalist was held incommunicado for nearly two years, and in another, an activist was said to have been tortured.
He said throwing reporters into jail for doing their job of informing the public sends a chilling message to journalists in Nigeria, adding that authorities need to end any harassment and ensure that members of the press can operate without fear.
Ewang noted that: “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 him 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. A social 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,” he explained.
He said in another recent case, the Police Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS) arrested and detained a Premium Times journalist, Samuel Ogundipe, on August 14, adding that Premium Times reported he was arrested for refusing to disclose his source for his August 9 article about a report by the Inspector General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, to acting President Yemi Osinbajo.
He noted that 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.”
He accused the SSS and SARS of previously been implicated in abuse of power and human rights violations across the country, including illegal arrests, detention, and torture.
The HRW has called on the Nigerian government to take immediate steps to end the pervasive atmosphere of fear and intimidation by security agencies, adding that the government should drop all charges against Jones Abiri and Samuel Ogundipe as a step to sanitizing the security system.