SAfrica prosecution: Nigeria ex-militant leader involved in deadly bombings that struck Abuja

Monday, October 4, 2010

SAfrica prosecution: Nigeria ex-militant guilty

JOHANNESBURG — A South Africa-based Nigerian ex-militant leader was directly involved in deadly bombings that struck his homeland’s capital during independence celebrations, according to South African prosecutors who charged him with terrorism Monday.

At a court hearing in Johannesburg, prosecutor Shaun Abrahams said Henry Okah was a senior member of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, which claimed responsibility for a dual car bombing that killed at least 12 people in Nigeria’s capital Abuja on Friday. Lawyers for Okah, who has been living in Johannesburg since 2009, say he has denied any involvement and that they would argue his arrest was unlawful

Okah made no comment at Monday’s hearings. His lawyers said he feared for his life in a central Johannesburg jail, worried another prisoner might try to gain notoriety by attacking him. The judge said Monday arrangements had been made to hold Okah in a private cell Monday night, and that he would rule Tuesday on whether to move the suspect to a jail Okah considered more secure.

Abrahams presented a charge sheet accusing Okah of breaking South African counterterrorism laws by participating in the bombings.

“We will be interacting and have been interacting with Nigerian authorities,” Abrahams told the court. Chris Iroala, who identified himself as an official at the Nigerian consulate in Johannesburg, was in court Monday, often standing at the prosecutor’s side. Iroala refused to comment on the case.

In Nigeria Monday, a security agency spokeswoman said nine people linked to Okah had been arrested there. The spokeswoman, Marilyn Ogar, would not name the suspects.

Sunday, Nigeria’s federal police force named two men — Ben Jessy and Chima Orlu — as the attacks’ “masterminds.” Federal police spokesman Emmanuel Ojukwu offered no further details about the two Nigerian men, other than warning the public it would be a crime to harbor them.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, also known by the acronym MEND, has destroyed oil pipelines, kidnapped petroleum company workers and fought government troops since 2006. It accuses Nigeria’s government for doing nothing to end poverty in the delta even as the nation receives billions of dollars from oil revenue.

Okah has not recently been seen as a key figure in MEND. In 2008, he 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. During his trial, word he was suffering from a kidney ailment emerged.

Charges 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. But a cease-fire quickly unraveled.

About an hour before Friday’s attacks, MEND issued a warning to journalists telling people to stay away from festivities at Eagle Square in Abuja marking Nigeria’s 50th anniversary of independence from Britain.

One car bomb exploded, drawing police, firefighters and the curious to the street near a federal courthouse. Five minutes later, a second car bomb exploded, apparently intended to target those drawn to the scene.

A third, smaller explosion struck inside Eagle Square during the ceremony, apparently injuring one security officer. However, MEND has denied placing any explosives inside the venue.

Nigeria’s president, though, has blamed a “small terrorist group that resides outside Nigeria” for the bombings. A statement from his office Sunday night quoted Jonathan as saying “investigations show that members of MEND have said they know nothing about” claiming responsibility for the attacks. However, it offered no other details.

The attack Friday marked the first time MEND targeted Nigeria’s capital.

The U.N. Security Council on Monday condemned the bombings “in the strongest terms” and called for the perpetrators, organizers, financiers and sponsors to be brought to justice.

The council called Friday’s dual car bombing a “heinous crime” and a “reprehensible act of terrorism.”

A council statement on Monday reaffirmed the need to combat terrorism and reiterated “that terrorism in all its forms and manifestations is criminal and unjustifiable regardless of its motivation wherever, whenever, and by whomsoever committed.”

It called on all countries to cooperate with Nigerian authorities in bringing those responsible to justice.

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

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