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 Henry Okah to spend 24 yrs in prison


A South African Court, yesterday, sentenced former leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, MEND, Mr. Henry Okah, to 24 years imprisonment, having been found guilty on 13-count charge of terrorism. The charges related to two car bombs in Abuja, in which 12 people were killed and 36 injured on October 1, 2010, on the anniversary of Nigeria’s independence, and another two explosions in Warri, earlier in March, 2010.

Judge Neels Claassen delivered the sentence in the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg, Phindi Louw, spokeswoman for the National Prosecuting Authority, said in a phone interview.  The sentence came after five postponements.

Okah was found guilty on January 21 of planning car bomb attacks in 2010 in Abuja, close to where President Goodluck Jonathan was celebrating Nigeria’s 50 years of independence. South African law allows trials of alleged terrorists arrested or resident in the country, no matter where their acts were committed. The court reserved pronouncement of the sentence to January 31, 2013. The sentence was later postponed to February 28, March 18, 19 and 20 before it was given yesterday.

MEND, the main rebel group in Niger Delta, which is home to Nigeria’s petroleum industry, Africa’s biggest, claimed responsibility for the Abuja bombing.

Okah was sentenced to 12 years for the Abuja bombing and another 12 years for a March, 2010 bombing in the Warri which MEND also claimed responsibility for.  Okah was also sentenced to 10 years for threatening South Africa and that term will run concurrently with the 12-year sentence for the bombing in Abuja, she said.

MEND had threatened to attack the holdings of companies including MTN Group Ltd. (MTN), Africa’s biggest mobile phone operator, and SacOil Holding Ltd. (SCL), an oil and gas exploration company, saying South African President Jacob Zuma is interfering “in the legitimate fight for justice” in the Niger Delta region.

Okah, who denied the charges, declined to testify. He said his trial was unfair because the Nigerian government blocked about 20 witnesses from traveling to South Africa to give evidence, he said in an interview on January 31.

“The judge made his decision based on what was before him,” Okah said. “The problem is that my witnesses were stopped from coming.”

Nigeria’s government accused Okah of being the leader of MEND, which said it was fighting for a greater share of oil revenue for the region. Thousands of fighters have since dropped their weapons and accepted government’s amnesty.

While Okah denies being involved in the Abuja blasts and yesterday described the claim that he leads MEND as “ridiculous,” he has said he commands the support of many armed groups in Nigeria’s oil region.

Reacting to the sentence, Mr. Femi Falana SAN, former counsel to Henry Okah, said the decision was unfortunate and urged Okah to appeal.

“It is very unfortunate after he had led the militants to lay down their arms here in Nigeria; after he and others were granted amnesty and after I defended him in Jos. The development is very unfortunate. I believe he will definitely appeal the judgment. He still has the ample opportunity to ask for the review of the judgment, and I am sure he will appeal.”

On its part, MEND, yesterday, said it received with incredulity the 24 years sentence on Henry Okah after a “sham trial in a South African kangaroo court”.

In a statement by its Spokesman, Jomo Gbomo, MEND said the sentence did not come as a surprise to it and accused the Federal Government  of influencing the verdict.

The statement read in part: “We are disappointed but not surprised that the South African judiciary has allowed itself to be compromised by the highly corrupt Nigerian government.

“The governments of South Africa and Nigeria should realise that this planned sentencing of Henry Okah would not in any way, shape or form, change our struggle as we will remain dedicated to our cause until we achieve full justice and emancipation for the Niger Delta and its people.”

Also, Lagos-based human rights activist and lawyer, Mr. Festus Keyamo, said the verdict was politically motivated.

In a statement, Keyamo contended that the judgment was legally incorrect because “Okah was not given adequate facilities and the opportunity to defend himself.”

He therefore urged the Federal Government to “immediately use all diplomatic efforts to ensure that Henry Okah does not die in a South African prison and for the South African Government to grant him unconditional pardon.”

Last January, Edmund Ebiware, an accused accomplice of Henry Okah was sentenced to life in jail by a Federal High Court in Abuja over his involvement in the Oct 1, 2010 Independence Day bombing  by Justice Gabriel Kolawole.

Born in 1965, Okah was arrested in Angola and deported to Nigeria in February 2008, and charged with 62 count of treason, terrorism, illegal possession of firearms and arms trafficking, and faced the death penalty.

The trial, which began in April, 2008, was held in private, because late President Umaru Yar’Adua said it would “jeopardize national security”. Lawyers for Okah said a closed trial was an infringement of his rights and asked a superior court to overturn the decision.

In response, on May 26, 2008, MEND attacked a Royal Dutch Shell pipeline in the Delta region and claimed to have killed 11 Nigerian soldiers.

In July 2009, Okah’s lawyer announced that he accepted an amnesty which had been offered by the Nigerian government to any militant willing to lay down his arms in a bid to end attacks on the oil industry.

Senior MEND official “General” Boyloaf claimed that if Okah was set free, the organization would indeed lay down its arms, and Jomo Gbomo Jomo, spokesman of the organization, supported Okah’s decision since his health was failing.

However, other MEND leaders said that they would reject the amnesty. On July 13, 2009, Judge Mohammed Liman announced that Okah was released, telling him in person “Having reviewed what the attorney general said, you have become a free man at this moment.”

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