A Nigerian journalist whose prolonged detention has drawn widespread local and international condemnation, has finally been arraigned before a magistrate, his lawyer told PREMIUM TIMES Saturday.
Jones Abiri was taken into custody in July 2016 by Nigeria’s ruthless State Security Service, which accused him of militancy but failed to file criminal charges within two days as required by law.
Mr Abiri, 50, was kept largely incommunicado since his arrest, a measure that was fiercely defended by top Buhari administration officials despite criticisms by local and foreign rights advocates.
Femi Falana, a rights activist leading Mr Abiri’s legal team, told PREMIUM TIMES his client was arraigned before a Chief Magistrate’s Court in Abuja on Friday.
The SSS said in court filings that Mr Abiri sent a text message to Agip and Shell to demand illicit payments of up to N500 million from the oil giants.
Although it was unclear whether this was the only count brought against Mr Abiri, the journalist was nonetheless reported to have been granted a N2 million bail.
The magistrate also required that Mr Abiri must provide two sureties who must be senior civil servants on at least Level-15. It was not immediately clear whether the sureties must be federal or state civil servants, but since the charges were filed by federal authorities, it can be easily assumed that the sureties are federal civil servants.
Also arraigned alongside Mr Abiri was Collins Opume, said to be a student of Niger-Delta University from Bayelsa State.
It was also unclear whether Mr Opume was arraigned as an accomplice of Mr Abiri, especially since his identity was not known before now. But he was believed to have been in custody for about the same time as Mr Abiri.
The magistrate, C. Nweke of Wuse Zone 2 Chief Magistrate’s Court, adjourned further proceeding on the arraignment, whose details remained shrouded in secrecy, until August 2.
Mr Falana said the date would coincide with the next adjournment date for a fundament rights suit preciously filed over the detention of Mr Abiri.
He added that the duo were sent back to the SSS detention facility in Abuja since the stringent bail terms set for them could not be immediately met.
Mr Abiri, publisher of Weekly Source magazine, was arrested on July 21 at his office in Yenagoa, the Bayelsa State capital, on allegations that he was a key militant terrorising locals and expatriates in the restive oil-rich region.
His arrest and continued detention elicited outrage from journalists and other media rights groups.
After keeping mum for several months, the SSS later disclosed that Mr Abiri wrote a confessional statement of his involvement in the crime while in custody.
This claim, alongside several similar allegations propagated against Mr Abiri by the SSS and government officials like Garba Shehu and Lai Mohammed, was rejected by the Committee to Protect Journalist.
The media advocacy group launched a worldwide campaign to mount pressure on Mr Buhari to order the immediate release of the journalist by the SSS.
Media practitioners also used the 2018 International Press Institute World Congress held in Abuja earlier this month to mount pressure on the Buhari government to release Mr Abiri.
Peter Nkanga, a journalist and media rights advocate whose extensive investigation into the mystery surrounding Mr Abiri’s detention was recently published by PREMIUM TIMES, said the SSS disclosed in court affidavit that the journalist was kept in custody for so long because efforts were still underway to arrest his purported conspirators.
Mr Nkanga added that the secret police also told that the court that forensic examination was still being conducted to establish Mr Abiri’s alleged roles.
Critics say under Mr Buhari, the SSS, which functions as a secret state police, has become more authoritarian, locking up citizens for months and years without charge.
Many are not allowed access to their families and lawyers, they say.
The SSS, led by Lawal Daura, has also flouted several court orders granting bail to high profile detainees like former national security adviser, Sambo Dasuki, and Shiite leader, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky.
Both men have been held for nearly three years.
The security agency has refused to name a spokesperson to respond to such allegations.