Nigerian journalist Omoyele Sowore remains in jail on trumped-up charges of treason and insulting the president

Omoyele Sowore. Screenshot from Democracy Now.

More than two months after his detention, Nigerian human rights activist and journalist Omoyele Sowore remains in prison despite a court order for his release.

Sowore was arrested by the Department of State Services (DSS) on August 3, 2019, in Lagos, Nigeria, because he called for national protests as part of the #RevolutionNow movement he started. Sowore was a presidential contender in the February 2019 elections, won by incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari.

Read more: Nigerian activist arrested for calling for a nationwide #RevolutionNow protest movement

The DSS branded the #RevolutionNow protest as an attempt at a forceful takeover of the government. On August 8, an Abuja court, headed by Justice Taiwo Taiwo, granted the DSS petition to keep Sowore in custody for 45 days while they conduct their investigation.

On August 23, 48 press freedom advocates, including Global Voices sub-Saharan Africa team, petitioned the United Nations (UN) and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to urgently intervene by securing Sowere's immediate release. They also described Sowore's arrest as a gross violation of his human rights and a threat to press freedom in Nigeria.

Read more: Human rights advocates petition the UN and AU over the detention of Nigerian protest leader

All these pleas fell on deaf ears as the government kept Sowore behind bars.

Treason and insults

At the expiration of the 45-day detention period granted to DSS by the court, the Nigerian government, on September 20, filed trumped-up charges of treason, cyberstalking and money laundering against Sowore.

According to the online newspaper CableNG, he was charged with treason for “staging a revolution campaign on September 5, 2019, aimed at removing the president and commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria”. He faces money laundering charges for transferring “the sum of $19,975 from his UBA account credited by City Bank, New York, into Sahara Reporters Media Foundation”. Sowore is the publisher of Sahara Reporters, an investigative online newspaper he founded in 2006. He also stands accused of cyberstalking for “causing insult, enmity, hatred and ill-will on the person of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”

The charges are punishable under the Money Laundering Prohibition Act, 2011, the Cybercrime Act of 2012, and the Nigerian Criminal Code Act, [Cap. C38 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004].

Disobeying court orders

The government has so far defied court orders calling for the release of Sowore.

On September 24, the same Abuja court, presided by Justice Taiwo Taiwo, ordered the immediate release of Sowore from DSS custody. Sowere's lawyer, Femi Falana, argued for Sowore's immediate release as the order granting the DSS the power to detain his client for 45 days expired on September 21. But state prosecutor G.O. Agbadua stated that it was lawful to keep Sowore in detention since charges were filed against him on September 20.

However, Falana flawed Agbadua's submission, stating that “a citizen could not be detained in anticipation of the arraignment.” Consequently, Justice Taiwo ordered the detainee's release.

This order was not heeded by the DSS because they had not received a copy of the court order. Consequently, Sowore's lawyers filed a notice of contempt of court against the DSS.

On September 30, Sowore was again arraigned on an alleged conspiracy to commit treason, cyberstalking and money laundering. He pleaded not guilty to the charges.

On October 4, Justice Ijeoma Ojukwu of an Abuja high court granted bail to Sowore with the sum of 100 million naira (about $280,000 United States dollars). They asked him to hand over his international passport to the authorities and prohibited him from addressing the press. Other conditions for the bail include a ban on traveling outside Abuja.

Sowore's lawyer, Femi Falana described the conditions attached to the bail as “stringent”.

Timeline of Sowore's trial

  • August 3: Sowore was arrested in Ikeja, Lagos, Nigeria.
  • August 8: Justice Taiwo Taiwo of an Abuja court granted the DSS plea to keep Sowore in custody for 45 days to conclude their investigation.
  • September 20: Nigerian government files charges against Sowore for terrorism, cybercrime and harassing the president.
  • September 24: Justice Taiwo orders the release of Sowore.
  • September 26: DSS — Nigerian secret service — said Sowore cannot be released because they have not received a copy of the court order; Sowore's lawyers filed a notice of contempt of court against the DSS.
  • September 30: Sowore re-arraigned in court, pleads not guilty to terrorism, insulting the president and other charges.
  • October 4: Sowore is granted bail, by Justice Ijeoma Ojukwu of an Abuja court, with the sum of 100 million naira; was asked to submit his international passport, barred from speaking to the press, among other stringent bail conditions.

International condemnation

The Nigerian government has remained adamant of calls from international organisations to release Sowore.

American economist Edmund Phelps, together with 72 academics and activists, called on the government to drop the charges against the “world-renowned journalist” and to “release him as soon as possible.”

Similarly, 50 human rights advocacy organisations, including Global Voices sub-Saharan Africa (GVSSA), renewed their call on the United Nations and African Union to prevail on the Nigerian government to release Sowore.

In an opinion piece published on Premium Times on September 23, Nigerian journalist ‘Fisayo Soyombo aptly summed up the sentiments of many over Sowore's travails:

I would talk about Sowore whether or not I’ll end up in jail? Filing charges against Sowore for ‘insulting’ the president is laughable, a complete abuse of federal powers and a lowering of the business of presidency to the gutters. Sowore abuses the ruling class from time to time, yes, but many who would not adopt his choice of words often agree quite alright that his summations are not unfounded. He often labels the ruling class as ‘thieves’, is that a lie? He likes to describe this government as ‘incompetent’, isn’t that true? And is it new? Is that not the term we popularly associated with Jonathan while in power? Thankfully, despot Buhari won’t be in power forever. Three more years and his reign will be over.

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