The detained publisher of Sahara Reporters, Omoyele Sowore, has pleaded not guilty to charges of fraud, treasonable felony and cyberstalking brought against him by the Nigerian government.
Mr Sowore was arraigned at the Federal High Court in Abuja on Monday, nearly two months after he was arrested. He was charged alongside another defendant, Olawale Bakare.
A court ordered Mr Sowore’s release last week, but the State Security Service refused to comply with the order even after the bail conditions had been fulfilled.
The journalist and former presidential candidate took the plea after his lawyers tried to ensure the court complied with the bail order.
Earlier, the lawyer representing Mr Sowore asked the court to decline audience to the SSS until the agency complied with the order for the release of his client.
The lawyer, Adeyinka Fusika-Olumide, urged the court to prevent the case from proceeding so that “those who are not part of the Judiciary will not make mockery of the Judiciary.”
Mr Fusika-Olumide said the defendants were not ready to take their pleas on Monday.
“There are two reasons. It is part of the process of arraignment that defendants should have access to their lawyers,” he said.
“There are two options in arraignment. Whether to plead guilty or not. To do that, they must have access to their lawyers who will advise them.
“It was only yesterday that Falana called me to inform me of his being outside Nigeria and requested that I hold the brief for him. The information he gave me was that throughout last week, he was virtually resuming and closing at the office of the SSS. He was denied access to Mr Sowore.”
Mr Fusika-Olumide said he was just served with copies of the charges Monday morning and that Mr Falana was not told of the charge.
“So they are not in any position to take their plea,” Mr Fusika-Olumide said.
Mr Fusika-Olumide was about to discuss the bail earlier granted bail but the prosecution lawyer, Hassan Liman, a senior advocate of Nigeria, objected to that announcement, saying, “the matter as discussed in another court should not be brought here.”
The court, however, allowed Mr Fusika-Olumide to continue and the defense lawyer responded to the arguments of Mr Liman, saying that the bail was not granted by another court, but by the federal high court.
Mr. Fusika-Olumide said the court had instructed the release of Mr Sowore, but that the SSS had refused to comply with the order.
The prosecuting lawyer, Mr Liman, said the fact that the lawyer representing the defendant did not know they had been served was not a problem. He said any decision to deny the hearing of the case would be unfair to the prosecution.
Mr Liman said the order for bail was made pending the arraignment of the defendant. He said the defense could not say they will not take the plea.
“That submission is for the press,” Mr Liman said, accusing Mr Fusika-Olumide of attempting to subject the case to a media trial. “Upon arraignment, this order has no more life,” Mr Liman said.
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Mr Olumide-Fusika accused the SSS of trying to intimidate the judge who granted the bail.
He said the SSS informed them about the arraignment on the pages of the newspaper and wondered who was guilty of the playing to the gallery.
The court ruled that there was no impediment to the taking of the plea. The court presided by Justice Ijeoma Ojukwu then ordered the defendants to take their plea.
While taking the plea, Mr Sowore said he did not understand the second count and the count was explained to him. He then pleaded not guilty.
He also said after hearing the count four that he did not have a UBA account.
The court adjourned the case till Friday and ordered Mr Sowore and Mr Bakare to be returned to the SSS custody.
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