Lawyer says Nigerian ex-militant leader in South Africa fears for his life

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Nigeria ex-militant leader fears for his life

JOHANNESBURG — A Nigerian militant suspect being held on terror charges in South Africa fears for his life because Nigerian government officials have made threatening statements, the man’s lawyer said Tuesday.

Henry Okah was arrested in Johannesburg over the weekend and accused in the bombings that killed at least 12 people in Nigeria’s capital Abuja on Friday. At a court hearing Tuesday, a judge trying to allay Okah’s security concerns ordered him held pending trial alone in a cell and given a special escort to and from court.

Defense lawyer Rudi Krause told reporters after the hearing that Okah “has received information that senior Nigerian government officials have expressed the view that they should have killed him when they had him incarcerated during the course of 2008-2009.”

Nigeria’s national police spokesman, Emmanuel Ojukwu, dismissed the accusation.

“No government will kill its citizens,” he told The Associated Press.

Okah is widely known as the former leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, though his lawyer denied that Tuesday. The group, also known as MEND, claimed responsibility for Friday’s bombing.

MEND has destroyed oil pipelines, kidnapped petroleum company workers and fought government troops since 2006. It accuses Nigeria’s government of doing nothing to end poverty in the delta even as the nation receives billions of dollars from oil found in the delta region.

In 2008, Okah was arrested in Angola and extradited to Nigeria, where he was accused of treason and terrorism and linked to a gunrunning scandal involving high-ranking military officials. His arrest and trial, during which word emerged that he was suffering from a kidney ailment, sparked some of MEND’s most audacious attacks.

Charges against Okah were dropped and he was granted amnesty and freed in July 2009 as part of an initiative the government had hoped would end unrest in the oil-rich Niger Delta. In October 2009, Nigeria’s late President Umaru Yar’Adua met with Okah. At the time, MEND called the meeting “a positive step towards constructive dialogue and change.” But a cease-fire quickly unraveled.

Okah has not recently been seen as a key figure in MEND, though South African prosecutors on Monday called him a “senior MEND member” and accused him of helping carry out or plot the Abuja bombings.

Tuesday, his lawyer said Okah had never been a MEND member, let alone a senior one.

“Mr. Okah simply strives for a peaceful solution to the problems in the Niger Delta,” Krause said.

Associated Press writers Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations in New York contributed to this report.

will not be displayed