MEND described the sentence as the height of injustice to its region and people.
The armed militant group, Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, MEND, on Tuesday condemned the 24-year jail term passed on its leader, Henry Okah, by the South African High Court over charges that he masterminded a series of terrorism incidents, including the October 1, 2010 twin bombings in Abuja.
The group threatened ‘hell’ over the conviction of Mr. Okah.
Lagos lawyer, Festus Keyamo, has also condemned the trial and conviction of Mr. Okah, describing the sentence by the South African court as “totally flawed.”
Justice Neels Claaseen of the High Court in South Gauteng in South Africa on Tuesday sentenced Mr. Okah to 24 years in prison after finding him guilty on 13 terrorism charges, including the Abuja bombing in which a dozen persons were killed as Nigeria was celebrating its 50th independence anniversary.
According to Mr. Claassen, during the trial Mr. Okah showed little remorse for his crime. He also pointed out that Mr. Okah’s intentions in the bombing incidents were to “obtain maximum casualties.”
“Effectively, the accused Okah is therefore sentenced to 24 years imprisonment,” Mr. Claassen said.
In its reaction on Tuesday, MEND rejected the sentence.
“The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) rejects the sentence on our leader (Henry Okah) by Justice Neels Claaseen of the South Guateng High Court,” the group said in a statement by one Comrade Azizi.
“Boko Haram has killed more innocent Nigerians than any other militant group in the country and yet their spokesperson was handed a three year sentence.”
Describing the sentence as “the height of injustice to our region and people”, MEND threatened to resist it by all means necessary, warning that consultations were on-going with some stakeholders and elders of the region, and adding their position would be made known later.
“The gate of hell has just been let loss (sic),” the group said.
MEND, which is referred to as a union of several armed militant groups in the oil rich Niger Delta region, was blamed for series of attacks on oil production and export facilities that resulted in the cut in Nigeria’s crude oil production capacity from about 2.3 million to less than one million barrels per day between 2003 and 2007.
Members of the groups have always justified their actions as necessary to pressurize government to pay special attention to the development of the Niger Delta from the oil wealth Nigeria gets from there.
The series of attacks by the group had compelled the administration of the late President Musa Yar’Adua to grant amnesty to members of the group who were ready to lay down their arms and embrace government’s rehabilitation, reintegration and reconciliation programme.
Though almost 28,000 members of various militant groups embraced the amnesty programme, Mr. Okah was one of the few leaders who rejected the programme; saying what they deserved was not amnesty, but justice to the people of Niger Delta through the equitable distribution of the wealth that comes from their environment for years of suffering from environmental degradation and devastation.
Mr. Okah, who was residing in South Africa, was arrested after the October 1, 2010 bombing denied any involvement in the bombings, claiming the charges against him were politically motivated.
He was however found guilty of terrorism charges including that of two explosions in March 2010 in the Southern Nigerian city of Warri, a major hub in the oil-rich Delta region.
Meanwhile, Mr. Keyamo said nothing has happened to make him change the reasons he gave last January for condemning Mr. Okah’s conviction, insisting that the sentence is “legally incorrect” as it was “politically motivated.”
As counsel to Charles Okah (Henry’s brother) and others who are facing the same set of charges under Nigerian Laws, Mr. Keyamo said he was actively involved in coordinating the trials both in South Africa and Nigeria and was in the best position to know that the trial was fundamentally flawed as Mr. Okah was not given adequate facilities and opportunity to defend himself.
Mr. Keyamo said after the prosecution closed its case in South Africa, the defence attorneys in South Africa and his Chambers in Abuja tried frantically to summon Mr. Okah’s witnesses, including, some government officials based here in Nigeria, to testify on his behalf but the efforts was frustrated by official bureaucratic bottlenecks.
“Without giving Henry’s counsel in South Africa adequate time and facilities to follow the directives, the South African court foreclosed his opportunity to call witnesses and rushed to convict him,” Mr. Keyamo said. “This is a breach of his fundamental right to fair hearing and an obvious attempt by the South African authorities to please Nigeria at all cost. That is why the judgment is nothing but political,” he said.
Mr. Keyamo, who sympathised with those who lost their lives, said it was wrong to convict Mr. Okah for the bombing incident without due process.
“I condemn this judgment and call on Nigerians and the international community to condemn the trial and judgment of Henry Okah whose only offence was his refusal to accept the so-called amnesty offered by the Yar’Adua-Jonathan administration and his insistence on the Niger-Delta controlling its resources.
“With the recent condemnation of Jonathan by some militants who initially accepted the amnesty programme, I am sure they now know that Henry Okah was correct not to have accepted the poisoned chalice called amnesty,” he said.
Mr. Keyamo called on the Nigerian government to immediately use all diplomatic efforts to get the South African government to grant Mr. Okah unconditional pardon to ensure that he does not die in a South African prison.