The International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for media freedom, today welcomed the fact that Nigerian journalist Jones Abiri was finally brought before a court after two years of enforced disappearance, though it reiterated its call for Abiri’s release.
Abiri, the publisher and editor-in-chief of the Weekly Source newspaper, was abducted from his office by Nigeria’s State Security Service (SSS) on July 21, 2016. Abiri was held for over two years in an SSS detention facility without charge and unable to communicate with his family or with a lawyer. Prior to Abiri’s arrest, the Weekly Source had published a story detailing an alleged military coup plan as well as articles critical of the Nigerian government.
In June, IPI publicly called for Abiri’s release during its 2018 World Congress in Abuja, which was attended by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and Information Minister Lai Mohammed.
Last month, under mounting international pressure, Abiri’s case finally proceeded to court as the SSS filed charges against him. In a court filing on July 27, the SSS charged Abiri under Nigerian anti-terror law for having allegedly threatened oil company officials and demanded illicit payments of up to ₦500 million from them. However, the prosecutor was not able to produce any witnesses for this claim during a second court hearing on August 2. The court then agreed to postpone the hearing until August 16.
IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said Abiri’s appearance in court was a mark of significant though insufficient progress.
“The fact that Mr. Abiri is now finally being granted access to a judge after two years of unlawful detention is a positive development”, he said. “However, in the absence of evidence supporting the state’s claims, we continue to call for Mr. Abiri’s immediate release and for him to be afforded due process and his full rights under Nigerian and international law.”
Two days after Abiri’s abduction, the SSS released a statement alleging that Abiri was a militant and that he had confessed to vandalizing oil pipelines, threatening to launch missile attacks against the official residence of Nigeria’s president, and masterminding a rumour that the military was planning a coup. However, Abiri has not been charged based on those accusations, according to the information that IPI has received.
In the first hearing, the court set bail at ₦2 million (approximately €4,800) and required Abiri to provide two senior civil servants as sureties. Abiri has not been able to meet those conditions, but the court has said it will revise them on August 8 at the request of Abiri’s defence lawyers.
Femi Falana, the head of the law firm defending Abiri, told IPI that the SSS only charged Abiri after Falana filed a fundamental rights suit at the beginning of July, appealing to the court to release Abiri without conditions and to declare his detention “illegal and unconstitutional”.
The court is expected to study the fundamental rights suit on August 16. Falana said that he was hopeful the court would rule in Abiri’s favour.
It is understood that Abiri had been held in SSS custody since his arrest. However, following the second court hearing, he was reportedly moved to the federal prison in Keffi, about 45 km southeast of Abuja. Peter Nkanga, a journalist who has closely been following Abiri’s case, described the transfer as an important development.
Nkanga told IPI that Abiri had demanded to be taken to the federal prison after the first hearing but that the SSS had taken him back to its own facility instead.
“This week we gathered so much media to the court that the SSS could not take him back into custody”, Nkanga said, referring to the August 2 hearing.
Nigerian media had previously published witness accounts alleging that Abiri had been tortured in SSS custody.
According to news reports following the second hearing, Abiri denied having threatened oil company officials and said he was confident of a successful outcome in the case.
“It is a pathetic situation for me to be facing this kind of persecution”, Abiri reportedly said.
Abiri’s family has not been able to meet him since his arrest. According to Nkanga, Abiri’s wife and five children have had to move from Yenagoa, the Bayelsa State capital, to a village in Southern Ijaw. Previously, the SSS reportedly denied Abiri’s family permission to visit him. Nkanga said that the family did not have the financial means to make the 700 km journey to visit Abiri in prison or to attend his court hearings in Abuja.
The SSS has thus far not commented on Abiri’s case. Journalists have complained that the organization has operated without a real spokesperson and has declined to answer questions from the press.