Six United States lawmakers, including Senate Minority Leader, ranking Senator Charles Schumer, have cautioned the Department of State Services (DSS) against the disregard of the rule of law under President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration. The position of the US legislators was contained in a letter addressed to the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami.
This is coming at a time the American government has also placed Nigeria under a special watch list of countries with religious persecution.
The other lawmakers who signed the letter were Robert Menendez (senator), Cory Booker (senator), Christopher Coons (senator), Bill Pascrell (congressman), and John Gotheirmer (congressman).
But in a surprising reaction, Malami told THISDAY yesterday that he was yet to receive any letter from the US lawmakers on the detention of publisher of Sahara Reporters, Omoyele Sowore.
THISDAY, however, sighted the letter but could not ascertain who received it on behalf of the justice minister at the Ministry of Justice in Abuja.
Sowore, publisher of Sahara Reporters, was arrested on August 3 for planning #RevolutionNow, a series of protests to demand an end to corruption and demand better living conditions for Nigerians. The protests were planned to commence on August 5. But on August 3, armed DSS officers broke into a hotel apartment, where Sowore was staying with some of his associates in Lagos. He and his associate, Olawale Bakare, were taken away in the raid that was captured by security cameras. In spite of two court orders admitting them to bail, DSS refused to release them.
But they were released on December 5 after a court on that day directed the DSS to release both men within 24 hours. However, the next day, DSS operatives stormed the court to re-arrest Sowore, alleging that he had breached one of the conditions for his bail.
He has been held without fresh charges.
In their letter dated December 20, the US lawmakers expressed concern that established legal procedures and rule of law were not being followed in Sowore’s case.
“Disturbing videos of the melee in court are circulating, which appear to show armed agent in court and Sowore being placed in choke hold after which he was re-detained by DSS, though no new charges have since been filed to justify this re-detention. We understand that his case has since been placed within your purview,” the letter to the AGF read in part.
Continuing, the lawmakers said, “We are pleased to stand alongside Nigeria as a democratic country. As the largest democracy in Africa, Nigeria has an opportunity and responsibility to serve as model for following the established rule of law under its own constitution.
“And as with all advanced democracies, this includes the lawful application of prosecutorial powers and actions as well as ultimate compliance with judicial rulings. In the case of Sowore, this does not appear to have happened.”
The lawmakers said Nigeria must learn how to uphold the basic human rights of its citizens, including their “freedom of expressions and political affiliation without fear of government reprisal and harassment, particularly for opposing or dissenting voices”.
They called on the justice minister to take immediate steps to ensure the safety and security of Sowore, “while he is held in government custody; work to facilitate speedy and fair resolution to the circumstances of his re-detention; and ensure he receives a legally sound and credible trial.”
The lawmakers also maintained that the continued detention of Sowore would only serve to tarnish Nigeria’s international reputation.
A former American ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell, had earlier warned that Sowore’s treatment was damaging Nigeria’s international reputation.
Meanwhile, the US government has placed Nigeria on a special watch list of countries that have engaged in or tolerated “severe violations of religious freedom.”
A statement on Friday by US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo explained that Nigeria was added to the list alongside Cuba, Nicaragua, and Sudan.
US also designated Boko Haram as an Entity of Particular Concern alongside al-Nusra Front, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qa’ida, al-Shabab, the Houthis, ISIS, ISIS-Khorasan and the Taliban.
Other countries that have been on the list under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
The US Department of State also renewed the placement of Comoros, Russia and Uzbekistan on the Special Watch List (SWL).
Close observers have said the US added Nigeria to the list because of the clampdown on Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), popularly known as Shiite Muslims, as well as the killing of Christians in the North.
The State Department explained, “These designations underscore the United States’ commitment to protect those who seek to exercise their freedom of religion or belief.
“We believe that everyone, everywhere, at all times, should have the right to live according to the dictates of their conscience.
“We will continue to challenge state and non-state entities that seek to infringe upon those fundamental rights and to ensure they are held to account for their actions.”