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A South African court on Tuesday sentenced leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), Henry Okah, to 24 years in jail after he was convicted on 13 terrorism charges.
Justice Neels Classen said the state had proven Okah’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
The judge said the convict’s failure to testify meant the evidence against him remained uncontested.
“Effectively, the accused, Okah, is therefore sentenced to 24 years imprisonment,” said Justice Classen.
The charges against Okah had to do with a twin car bomb during the October 1, 2010, Independence Day celebration at the Eagle Square in Abuja in which 12 people were killed and 36 injured.
The second bombing took place in Warri on March 15, 2010, at a post amnesty dialogue meeting. One person was killed and 11 seriously injured.
In both incidents, two car bombs went off minutes apart. Okah was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment for each of the bombings and 13 years for the threats made against the South African government after his arrest in October 2010.
The 13 years would run concurrently with the 24 years.
Okah denied any involvement, claiming the charges against him were politically motivated.
Reacting to the development in a phone chat with Daily Independent, Lagos lawyer, Festus Keyamo, took the same position as Okah that the trial was politically motivated.
Keyamo insisted that Okah was not given a fair hearing to defend himself.
He added that the trial itself was a nullity because the MEND leader was not allowed to call his witnesses from Nigeria.
“I have made my views known before about Henry Okah’s trial. That trial as far as I am concerned is a nullity. He was not allowed to call his witnesses from Nigeria,” he said.
Earlier in January when Okah was found guilty, Keyamo had issued a statement in which he condemned the judgement in its totality, saying Okah was being punished over his insistence not to accept the amnesty of the Federal Government.
“The decision of the South African court that convicted Henry Okah of charges relating to terrorism is politically motivated and legally incorrect.
“As counsel to Charles Okah and others who are facing the same set of charges under Nigerian laws, I have been actively involved in coordinating the trials both in South Africa and in Nigeria.
“The fundamental flaw in the trial is that Henry Okah was not given adequate facilities and the opportunity to defend himself. This is because after the prosecution closed its case in South Africa, the defence attorneys and my chambers here in Abuja tried frantically to summon the witnesses of Henry Okah who are based here in Nigeria to testify on his behalf.
“These witnesses include some government officials. Henry has been convicted without due process,” Keyamo had said in his earlier statement.
Also speaking, Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Ikeja branch, Monday Onyekachi Ubani, said Okah was fortunate not to have been given a death sentence which is the penalty for terrorism in South Africa.
“He has the right of appeal, so that is not the end of the matter. He will exhaust all the appellate process in South African courts concerning the conviction. I wish him good luck.
“To the government of Nigeria, they will see it as a welcome development but as to whether he was given a fair hearing or he has gotten justice is a different ball game,” Ubani said.
The NBA chief also faulted Nigeria’s judicial process, which he described as slow, ineffective and inefficient.
He added that if Okah had been charged here in Nigeria, the case would not have reached verdict stage by now.
But another Niger Delta militant, Mujaheed Dokubo Asari said the jail term serves Okah right.
“This is the best thing to happen in the struggle for our people. Some of us are now vindictaed because a man who was merely a businessman and not a freedom fighter cannot just hijack the collective struggle of our people and make it a personal and business venture. He thinks of himself alone and no other person was important to him. He deserves the sentence.”
However, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) said it “received with incredulity the 24 years sentence” after a sham trial in a South African kangaroo court.
“We are disappointed but not surprised that the South African judiciary has allowed itself to be compromised by the highly corrupt Nigerian government.
“The governments of South Africa and Nigeria should realise that this sentencing of Henry Okah will not in any way, shape or form, change our struggle as we will remain dedicated to our cause until we achieve full justice and emancipation for the Niger Delta and its people,” the group said in a statement issued by its spokesperson, Jomo Gbomo, on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, it was mixed reactions from Niger Delta activists who spoke to Daily Independent on Tuesday.
Programme Officer of a civil society organisation, Social Action, Celestine Akpobari, said the political undertones surrounding the trial had given away the South African court long before the ruling was delivered.
Akpobari noted that the ruling was an arrangement between the governments of South Africa and Nigeria.
“The sentence is politically driven, because long before now, he should have been sentenced by the Judge. The sentence is not because of crime but an arrangement between the South African government and the Federal Government of Nigeria,” Akpobari said.
But his counterpart in the Environmental Rights Action (ERA) Bayelsa State, Alagoa Morris, said: “We want to see him back after his jail term because he is still our own. I want him to serve his jail term in South Africa because of the condition of Nigerian prisons.
“It is gratifying to note that the life sentence we heard of has been reduced and there is hope too that he will leave prison before the time runs out. It is a shame on Nigeria that the country is talking about dialoguing with terrorists called Boko Haram while Henry Okah is being sentenced.”
But a university lecturer, who reacted on the condition of anonymity, reasoned that Okah’s sentencing would serve as a deterrent to others.
“Yes, Okah had been sentenced. It should serve as a deterrent to others who want to continue in violent crime because crime is crime anywhere and any person found guilty should be charged accordingly”, he said.