Saturday, February 23, 2008
'Mending' Henry Okah
A Federal High Court sitting in Abuja on Friday ordered the Federal Government to allow relatives, doctors and lawyers access to the detained leaders of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta ( MEND), Henry Okah and Edward Atatah.
Justice Babs Kuewumi gave the order upon an ex-parte application filed and moved before the court by Mr. Femi Falana, lawyer to the MEND leaders. The judge ordered thus, “It is hereby ordered that the respondents should allow the family members, lawyers and doctors of the applicants to visit them in custody from time to time.”
The respondents in the suit are the Attorney-General of the Federation, the Inspector-General of Police and the Director of State Security Services. Kuewumi also granted leave to the applicants to enforce their fundamental rights to personal liberty, dignity of their person, fair hearing and freedom of movement.
The judge, however, refused a prayer that the applicants be released unconditionally. He ordered that the respondents should be notified of the existence of the suit.
The court process, Kuewumi ordered, should be served on all the respondents through the office of the AGF in Abuja. Earlier, Falana had told the court that the arrest and detention of his clients without warrant since February 14 constituted a violation of their fundamental rights to personal liberty. He said that the respondents had no power to keep them in detention beyond 24 hours without charging them to court.
Falana said that Okah was a trained marine engineer and businessman resident with his family in South Africa since 2004 while Atatah was a Merchant Navy Captain based in Lagos. He attached to the suit a permanent resident permit of Okah numbered JHB2996/05 and referenced JHB2996-3001/05. Falana said that his clients were arrested September 3rd 2007 at the Luanda Airport, Angola, where they had gone to inspect a trawler which they had wanted to buy for their fishing business.
The Angolan government, he alleged, deported them to Abuja on February 14 at the request of the Federal Government. He said that the Nigerian security agents who arrested them and took them to an undisclosed detention centre.
He said, “The respondents did not acknowledge that they were detaining the applicants until two days ago when it was reported on the Internet that the first applicant had died in the course of interrogation in Nigeria.” The Federal Government had refuted the rumour of the death of Okah and had said that it was an attempt to cause a breach of peace.
The police had also, on Thursday, said that the applicants were being investigated for allegedly plotting to overthrow some governments in West Africa and for the theft of weapons and ammunition in Nigerian armouries. The detainees were described by the police as international gun runners, oil bunkerers, kidnappers, pirates and financiers of militant activities.
The police had also said that they were extradited from Angola where they were arrested while negotiating for the purchase of gun boats and ground-to air missiles for use to destabilise Nigeria and other West African countries.
... and a brother's insight into how it all began
The MEND leader, who is the fourth of nine children, enjoyed adventure comics and read Commando magazines, Charles, Henry Okah's brother said, adding, “We would talk about battles in the Second World War endlessly. We loved war films and talked about them all the time.” Although neither of them went into the military, Henry and their father regularly quarrelled because he was “very brave and headstrong.”
Charles said Henry rejected offers from universities but chose to go to a nautical engineering college and into the Merchant Navy. When Henry turned 19, their mother died and they visited their family home, where the MEND leader was appalled at the conditions in the Niger Delta.
Henry was also badly affected by the execution of Ogoni environmentalist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, in 1995 because he saw the late poet as a role model. Charles, who declined to have his photograph taken, denied knowledge of his brother’s alleged involvement in gun-running. He stated that his brother and a friend, Edward Atatah, a captain in the Merchant Navy, were in Angola to buy a used trawler for Henry’s marine engineering consultancy.
Recalling that they both spoke just before Henry and Atatah were arrested at Luanda Airport, Charles said, “He called me and said they were being delayed on the way in and their passports were checked. He was worried that they were being set up.” He added that Henry was “travelling on his real passport” at the time because he had been visited by top-ranking Nigerian government officials in August and believed there was nothing to fear.