Tobi Soniyi in Lagos, Adedayo Akinwale and Alex Enumah in Abuja
The Department of State Services (DSS) on Saturday denied re-arresting Publisher of Sahara Reporters and Convener of #RevolutionNow, Mr. Omoyele Sowore, in the courtroom, insisting he was re-arrested outside the court. DSS claimed none of its personnel was involved in a videoed spectacular courtroom seizure of Sowore on Friday, which stopped court proceedings, went viral, and alarmed the world.
Just as the global outrage caused by the activist’s re-arrest continued at the weekend, with United States Senator Bob Mendez warning of consequences for US-Nigeria relations, and his colleague, Democratic Presidential aspirant, Senator Cory Booker, condemning the act as “appalling”.
Booker wrote via his verified twitter handle, “It’s appalling that NJ journalist Omoyele Sowore was re-arrested in Nigeria hours after his release. This is a shocking affront to the country’s rule of law and Nigeria must cease its dangerous attacks on freedom of expression.”
Also yesterday, prominent Nigerians and national bodies rose in condemnation of the action of the secret police
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), and others criticised the re-arrest, saying the development can blight Nigeria’s democratic gains.
Sowore was re-arrested by operatives of DSS hours after the security agency released him in obedience of a court order.
While prominent Nigerians, including constitutional lawyer, Mike Ozekhome, SAN, described Sowore’s re-arrest, which as shown by a viral video, took place inside a courtroom, as unprecedented, Menendez said the development could force the United States government to reassess its bilateral relations with Nigeria.
Sowore’s wife, Opeyemi, however, evoked emotions when she lamented: “How do I tell my children, who after 125 days have for the first time spoken to their dad and seen his face, that he was again in detention and that he may not be coming home for Christmas?”
But, in a curious denial, DSS said Sowore was re-arrested outside the courtroom. In a statement signed by its Public Relations Officer, Peter Afunanya, DSS described the reports about its conduct on Friday at the Federal High Court, Abuja, as a “misinformation” and insisted the violent re-arrest scene that went viral was made up.
The statement said, “A critical look at the videos in circulation would convince any objective viewer that there was no DSS personnel during the entire period the Sowore crowd acted out its orchestrated drama. Its personnel were never, at any time, involved in the incident.
“In actual fact, it was his people who seized him. And from the latest developments, it has become obvious what the intent for such mischief was meant for – simply to serve a propagandist purpose as well as bring the Service to disrepute.
“Eye witness and several media accounts have disclosed that the court had adjourned peacefully without an untoward incident when suddenly the unruly crowd imported into the courtroom went into frenzy on the mere suspicion that DSS was sighted at the court premises.
“The eventual re-arrest of Sowore by the DSS was effected outside the courtroom. His lead counsel has affirmed this.
“The DSS, as a professional, responsible and law abiding organisation, could not have invaded a courtroom, including the one presided over by a respected Judge who is not only handling its case but whose order was unconditionally obeyed within a 24 hour ultimatum. The Service holds the judiciary in utmost respect and will continue to work with it for national peace and public safety in Nigeria.”
DSS reiterated its accusations of rebellious conduct against Sowore, alleging that the publisher, who was arrested just before the date of a mass rally he had called, “is facing trial not as an activist, journalist or a politician, but for his resort to call for violence, forceful takeover of government and suspected transnational illegal activities.”
Menendez: There will be consequences in relations
In a video obtained by THISDAY, Senator Menendez, at a press conference alongside Sowore’s wife, Opeyemi, declared, “Today, my office contacted our ambassador in Nigeria in an effort to obtain answers on what actions the United States is taking on Sowore’s family’s behalf. In the next several days, I’ll continue to engage with the State Department of Washington to ascertain the impact that the re-arrest of Mr. Sowore and the detention of other activists and journalists will have in our relationship with Nigeria.”
He suggested that the bilateral relationship between the US and Nigeria should be reassessed due to the treatment being meted out to Sowore and others in similar circumstances.
“Mr. Sowore needs to be free and he needs to be free now. The rule of law must be observed and that means he should be liberated,” insisted the senator.
Mendez expressed concern that the Nigerian security agency was undermining the judiciary while the federal government turned a blind eye.
In answer to a journalist’s question, Mendez said, “It is not a question of charges. It’s the question of the state security came in and intervened in a judicial process, which had liberated him and physically to a choke-hold dragged him off. This is in violation of not only the rule of law and of the dictates of the court, but it is also in violation of the basic elements of human rights which is being observed globally that are part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that Nigeria, I believe, is a signatory to.
“So the government has to intercede here and get control of the security forces. It has to ultimately make sure that the dictates of the court are observed and, if not, there is lawlessness.
“He was released by court orders. He should be released. He should be out of harm’s way and we are watching. We will continue to press and the consequences of anything happening to Mr. Sowore will be far beyond any harm that comes to him, there will be consequences in our relationship with Nigeria.”
He also declared at the press conference, “The New Jersey is watching, the United States is watching and the world is watching.
“The United States is watching, the world is watching. I am outraged by the blatant harassment of Mr Sowore, an activist and journalist whose only crime appears to be the expression of his right to freedom of expression. (This) is becoming symptomatic of an increasingly closing civic and political space in Nigeria.
“The Nigerian court has twice ordered his release on bail and the state security agency openly defied the court orders each time, leaving me to conclude that either Nigeria no longer respects the rule of law or President Muhammadu Buhari is woefully out of touch with what the agencies of his government are doing in his name.
“This is unacceptable in a country that calls itself a democracy.”
Menendez, who invited Mrs. Opeyemi Sowore to join him at the podium, continued, “Freedom of the press is a fundamental pillar in a democracy and indispensable check on government overreach. Journalists who risk their lives to expose the truth should be celebrated.
“Over two hundreds years ago, our founding fathers had the foresight to recognise the importance of a free press to a fledgling democracy and enshrined it in our first amendment. Today that importance cannot be overstated.
“It is unacceptable to treat the husband and father of a US citizen with such a blatant cruelty. We stand here by the family who is devastated by the uncertainty that this action has caused.”
Opeyemi: How do I tell my children…
When Mrs. Sowore spoke, she said her children were delighted, when their father was released on Thursday.
But, “I’m really shaken to my core at what I witnessed this morning. I was woken up at 4am to see what I can only call truly outrageous and a gross disregard for the rule of law. My husband was strangled and forcefully removed from the courtroom.”
She voiced her pain and disappointment at Sowore’s re-arrest, saying, “How do I tell my children, who after 125 days have for the very first time spoken to their dad and seen his face, that he’s again in detention and may not be coming home for Christmas?”
Menendez had been involved in attempts to get the Nigerian government to release Sowore. Last month, he and Representative Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5) sent a private letter to the Head of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria to press the Nigerian government to free people working in the civil and media space. The letter specifically cited Omoyele Sowore’s case.
NBA demand Bichi’s suspension
On Friday also, the NBA demanded the immediate suspension of the Director-General of DSS, Yusuf Bichi, over the re-arrest of Sowore in the court premises. NBA, in a statement by its National Publicity Secretary, Kunle Edun, said it was “greatly dismayed at the exhibition of primitivity, thuggery, insane passion for lawlessness, contempt and disrespect for the rule of law by agents of the DSS”.
The body of lawyers in the country also said it found it disgraceful that this “court riot” occasioned by the high-handedness and insensitivity of the security operatives interrupted judicial proceedings and made the presiding judge to abandon the proceedings because of safety concerns.
NBA urged Buhari to “ensure that the federal government and agencies under it obeyed court orders,” as the display of “disrespect of the court by the DSS was legendary and unrivalled”.
It also called on all Nigerians to stand up and ensure that no government or any of its agencies disrespected the constitution of the country.
NBA added, “We call for the immediate suspension of the Director-General of the Department of State Security from office. We make this demand bearing in mind the fact that the DSS under his leadership had established itself as a brutish and irresponsible agency that derives immense pleasure from violating the fundamental rights of Nigerians and disrespecting court orders.
“The National Assembly should review the laws setting up the DSS and, indeed, all security agencies in Nigeria with a view to repositioning them to be more responsible and responsive to the public.”
The association also demanded, “That the Attorney General of the Federation, being the Chief Law officer of the Federation, takes over all the political cases or cases involving politically exposed persons presently handled by the DSS.”
NBA stated that its demands were without prejudice to the consultations presently going on among critical stakeholders in the legal profession and the judiciary on how best to ensure that this sad incident does not re-occur.
It also thanked all lawyers and Nigerians who had expressed displeasure over the sad incident, noting that lawyers and Nigerians alike would be carried along as it further engages with critical stakeholders.
NHRC calls for prosecution of operatives involved
On its part, the NHRC, while calling for the prosecution of all the security operatives involved in the court invasion said, it was necessary for those who desecrated the hallowed chamber of court to be punished to serve as a deterrent to others.
NHRC stated, “As officials paid with tax payers money, there is no room for impunity and utter disregard for the constitution. Our democracy is founded on the principle of separation of powers and all citizens including law enforcement officials must understand the implications of that and are enjoined to respect the law and the constitution in the enforcement of the law.
“Accordingly, the Commission directs all the relevant agencies of government to arrest and try all law enforcement officers involved in the desecration of the hallowed chambers of the federal high court Abuja on Friday 6th Dec 2019 for contempt in the face of the court.
“They should be tried and this should serve as a reminder to all law enforcement agents that they must obey the law in carrying out their law enforcement duties. They must enforce the law within the law.”
The commission, which said it watched with dismay the conduct of the DSS, reiterated the need for law enforcement officials to understand that to qualify as law enforcement agents, they must first of all be law-abiding and not be above the law.
“Impunity by law enforcement officials cannot be indulged in our democracy, because impunity uproots the very foundation of our constitution and our democracy,” the statement added.
Ozekhome: Action shameful, disgusting
Ozekhome, while condemning the devlopment, said, “It was a show of extreme shame, disgust and degeneracy to see a whole secrete security apparatchik descend to the abysmal gutters of physically invading the hallowed chambers of a court of law to forcefully arrest a suspect, viet armis, by resort to crude and unorthodox Hitlerite Gestapo tactics in a supposed constitutional democracy.
“The video that went viral about this ugly and ill-advised outing that has further reduced our worth in the perception of the international community is condemnable in every sense of the word. It downgrades us, belittles us, and our humanity and makes us laughable before civilised nations. We beheld an unarmed, helpless and hapless Sowore being dragged on the floor, helplessly like a vanquished prisoner of war (PoW) just taken as ransom.
“Justice Ojukwu had to be spirited off to her chambers by her security. When a government that is supposed to respect and protect institutions, citizens’ rights and rule of law, invades and desecrates the SACRED precincts of a Court of law, then, we are in trouble. When the same DSS invaded Judges’ homes in October 2016, terrorizing the hapless Judges and their families, many uninformed Nigerians hailed the misadventure as a sign of fighting corruption.
“I had vehemently disagreed then, citing section 36 of the 1999 Constitution and section 7 of the ACJA that inure in us our humanity and human dignity and respect. I had warned then of a possible descent into anarchy and chaos if the masked DSS goons were not immediately restrained and halted on their tracks. Friday’s disgraceful and atrocious outing by the DSS is the clearest exemplification of a rudderless state in search of a redemptive deus ex machina.
“A government that is short on tolerance to criticism, plurality of voices and opposition and which serially violates citizens’ rights and disobeys court orders is a ready recipe for organised disenchantment. Our constitutional democracy should be one modeled on the rule of law and not on the rule of the thumb of a benevolent ruler, even if dictatorial, tyrannical, absolutist and fascist.”
Sowore and his co-detainee, Olawale Bakare, were re-arrested on Friday few hours after their release from the DSS custody where they had been in the last four months.
Justice Ijeoma Ojukwu had on Thursday, December 5, frowned on the continued detention of the defendants despite their release on bail. She consequently ordered the DSS to release Sowore and Bakare within 24 hours and to report to the court the following day to confirm that her orders had been complied with.
The DSS complied with the court by releasing the defendants to their lawyers on Thursday, but made a U-turn on Friday morning and seized Sowore and Bakare right inside the courtroom while other proceedings were on-going.
The invasion of the courtroom forced Justice Ojukwu to abandon sitting and other judicial activities for the day.