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UN Panel Declares Sowore’s Arrest Illegal, Arbitrary

The United Nations Working Group has declared the detention of human rights activist, Omoyele Sowore, as arbitrary and illegal under international law.

It, therefore, called on the Nigerian government to stop the unlawful prosecution of Sowore for his attempts to organise a peaceful protest in August of 2019.

The United Nations Working Group on arbitrary detention, under the United Nation Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR), made the demand in a statement.

Omoyele Sowore and Olawale Bakare in court, February 2020

The group comprises scholars and experts who specialise in human rights issues and related laws.

It will be recalled that Sowore was arrested on August 3 last year in Lagos by the men of Department of State Services, a domestic intelligence agency with a history of repression.

He was moved to the agency’s headquarters in Abuja where he was illegally detained for 144 days despite different court orders issued for his release.

The DSS accused Sowore of baseless crimes like money laundering and that he was plotting to overthrow President Muhammadu Buhari even though it failed to produce any evidence to substantiate its claim.

The UN Working Group stressed that Sowore’s detention was arbitrary from the outset, pointing out that the charges against him were quite vaguely defined and that such vagueness seems to have been used to make an ordinary exercise of freedoms sound like a threat to national security and a terrorist act.

The group said, “The source reports that, in the early hours of the morning of August 3, 2019, two days to the planned protests, Mr Sowore was arrested at his hotel and held for days without being formally charged. After one of his family members granted an interview with Democracy Now calling for his release, the authorities immediately denied Mr Sowore access to his family for over two months.

“The Department of State Services publicly stated that Mr Sowore’s ‘call for a revolution’ presented a threat of insurrection that warranted his arrest. The source notes that the public widely knew that Mr Sowore’s call for a peaceful pro-democracy protest was not a call for undemocratic political insurrection, let alone a violent upheaval. There was no warrant for Mr Sowore’s arrest, and he was detained in the custody of the Department for five days without being brought before a judge.

“On August 6, 2019, the Department of State Services sought an ex parte order from the Federal High Court in Abuja to detain Mr Sowore for an additional 90 days, to conduct investigations, without formally charging him. On August 8, 2019, the court granted the request to extend his detention, under section 27 (1) of the Terrorism Prevention Act, 2013, but permitting the Department to detain Mr Sowore for 45 more days.

“The source states that the request was granted under an overly vague provision of the antiterrorism law from 2013. The court refused to hear the motion to quash the 45-day detention order until September 21, 2019, the day the detention order expired.

“Mr Sowore was detained for a total of 48 days without formal charges filed against him. On September 20, 2019, seven criminal charges were brought against him, including the crime of cyberstalking and for allegedly insulting the President of Nigeria online. Others were treasonable felonies and money-laundering. To date, no evidence of any wrongdoing for those extremely serious charges has been produced by the authorities.

“The source notes that the authorities rely solely on Mr Sowore’s lawful public statements and free exercise of his right to freedom of expression.”

The group also expressed that by cutting off access to his family and implementing severe and disproportionate bail conditions, the Nigerian government had violated Sowore’s right to a fair trial.

It also called on the Nigerian government to conduct a full and independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding Sowore’s detention, to release Sowore from his bail conditions, and to take appropriate measures against those responsible for the violation of his rights.

“In the light of the preceding, the Working Group renders the following opinion: The deprivation of liberty of Omoyele Sowore, being in contravention of articles 9 and 11 (2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and articles 2, 3, 9, 14 and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is arbitrary and falls within categories I, II, III and V.

“The Working Group requests the Government of Nigeria to take the steps necessary to remedy the situation of Mr Sowore without delay and to bring it into conformity with the relevant international norms, including those set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“The Working Group considers that taking into account all the circumstances of the case, the appropriate remedy would be to unconditionally release Mr Sowore immediately and accord him an enforceable right to compensation and other reparations, in accordance with international law. In the current context of the global coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and the threat that it poses in places of detention, the Working Group calls upon the government to take urgent action to ensure the immediate, unconditional release of Mr Sowore.

“The Working Group requests the government to disseminate the present opinion through all available means and as widely as possible,” the statement noted.

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