Gabriel Ogbonna, a human rights lawyer based in Abia State, has been held in the custody of the State Security Service (SSS) for over two months, despite court judgments ordering his release, PREMIUM TIMES reports.
On March 24, over 20 police officers in company of Chief of Staff to the Abia governor, Tony Agbazuere, and former Commissioner of Police, Ene Okon, stormed Mr Ogbonna’s chambers to arrest him.
Before his arrest, Mr Ogbonna had made critical comments about public officials and their policies via his Facebook page.
Shortly after the arrest of March 24, he was arraigned alongside another person for cybercrime and publishing false and threatening messages through the internet against the governor, Okezie Ikpeazu. He was arraigned at a magistrate court in Umuahia.
The offences, according to the charge sheet, are punishable under Section 27(1) (a) and 18(1) of cyber crimes (Prohibition Prevention ETC) Act, 2015.
However, because the magistrate court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case, he was then remanded at a correctional facility in the state capital until April 28, when he was arraigned before the Federal High Court in Umuahia and was granted bail.
Mr Ogbonna was, however, rearrested by SSS operatives on his way out of the correctional facility in Umuahia on the same day. This was after he had perfected the bail conditions.
This paper learnt that the SSS moved Mr Ogbonna to its office in the state and subsequently its headquarters in Abuja, where he has been in custody, without any charges against him.
Nkem Okoro, the lawyer representing Mr Ogbonna, told PREMIUM TIMES that the SSS got a petition from an NGO, alleging that the human rights lawyer had made abusive comments against President Muhammadu Buhari online.
“This was masterminded by Abia Governor since there is nothing to hold against him in Umuahia and that the court has granted him bail,” he said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
None of Mr Ogbonna’s friends, relatives or legal representative has been allowed to visit him since he was transferred to Abuja.
Above the law?
All legal efforts to ensure the release of Mr Ogbonna from the SSS custody have been unsuccessful.
On June 29, the Federal High Court in Umuahia ordered that the SSS should release him unconditionally, thus awarding a N1.5 million damages in his favour.
Also, on July 6, in the suit challenging the infringement of Mr Ogbonna’s human rights filed in Abuja, the SSS refused to present him in the FCT High Court and the case was adjourned to July 17.
In reaction to the SSS’s plea to further adjourn the case last Friday, Justice Aninih. of the FCT High Court granted bail to Mr Ogbonna on the conditions that he produce two sureties who have 20 million naira.
According to the documents obtained by this paper, one of them must be a civil servant not below Grade level 14, and both sureties must have landed property in Abuja.
Mr Okoro informed this paper that although the bail conditions are stringent, it will be perfected in no distant time. He expressed optimism that the security agency will comply with the court’s order this time.
PREMIUM TIMES had reported the notoriety of the SSS when it comes to disobeying court rulings and adherence to judicial processes.
The publisher of Sahara Reporters, Omoyele Sowore, Shiite leader Ibrahim El-Zakzaky and former National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, were held by the agency despite being granted bail by the courts in separate cases.
Although Messrs Sowore and Dasuki were eventually freed in December 2019, Mr El-Zakzaky is still in detention.
Uzoma Ogbonna, the wife of Mr Ogbonna, as well as human rights activists and organisations have protested the illegal detention, calling for the immediate release of Mr Ogbonna.
“They should release my husband. He just spoke the truth and he is being persecuted for that. We need him. The children need him,” she said in a telephone interview.
Mrs Ogbonna, who delivered a baby last Monday, told PREMIUM TIMES that she has been denied access to her husband for more than a month.
She lamented the hardship that comes with taking care of the four kids during the pregnancy and after.
“The pregnancy was 10-months old before I went to bed. You give birth and your husband is nowhere around. It is not easy doing everything alone.”
Worried about the condition of her husband, Mrs Ogbonna said there are possibilities that Mr Ogbonna’s health has worsened, noting that he suffers a chronic ulcer.
In a similar vein, human rights activist and senior lawyer, Femi Falana, demanded that the SSS should, as a matter of urgency, ensure his immediate release and payment of the N1.5 million awarded in his favour by the court.
“However, if Mr Ogbonna is not released forthwith, his lawyers should commence contempt proceedings against the authorities holding him in illegal custody, as no individual or institution is above the law of the land,” he advised.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) have also challenged the illegal actions of the DSS.
“It is unacceptable that the #DSS is still unlawfully detaining Emperor Ogbonna despite concerns about his health. Ignoring court order by the DSS is a stain on Nigeria’s image,” AI wrote on its Twitter page.
HURIWA’s national coordinator, Emmanuel Onwubiko, in a statement, noted that “If the DSS believes they have any reasonable grounds to re-arrest him (assuming without conceding that they do have) or credible charges against him, they ought to have promptly handed him over to the police for prosecution, in accordance with due process.”
He further stated that it is not only illegal, but also malicious and high-handed for the SSS to refuse his lawyers and family access to visit him.
The spokesperson of the Abia State governor, Onyebuchi Ememanka, did not deny the involvement of the state government in the arrest of Mr Ogbonna but claimed ignorance of his incarceration at the SSS custody.
“He made a post on Facebook with criminal allegations and we wrote a petition to the police. He was arrested and charged to court.
“The court granted him bail and we did not oppose the bail application. After he had perfected the bail conditions, he was re-arrested by the DSS. Governor Ikpeazu of Abia state knows nothing about his detention,” Mr Ememanka told this reporter.
Repeated calls and text messages sent to the SSS spokesperson, Peter Afunaya, seeking the reaction of the security agency on the issue, have not been responded to.