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Nigeria20 October 2005

Newspaper publisher held for past 10 days in breach of constitutional rights

Reporters Without Borders today condemned the unconstitutional way the authorities arrested Weekly Star publisher Owei Kobina Sikpi on 11 October in the south-eastern oil town of Port Harcourt and have held him ever since on a charge of publishing false information.

“Protesting against a journalist’s illegal detention could be quite pointless in Nigeria under President Olusegun Obasanjo, given how much everyone seems to accept the impunity enjoyed by the security forces, but you do not need to be a lawyer to see that Sikpi’s arrest and imprisonment for the past ten days violates at least two articles of the constitution,” the press freedom organisation said.

“What is more, although it currently holds the presidency of the African Union, Nigeria has not been criticised or sanctioned by any other country for its repeated attacks on the independent press,” Reporters Without Borders added.

A commando of gunmen raided the printing press of the privately-owned Weekly Star as the latest issue was being printed on 11 October. They arrested Sikpi and four employees and took away copies of the newspaper.

As far as Reporters Without Borders has been able to establish, it seems the commando consisted of police officers and members of the State Security Service (SSS), a federal intelligence agency. Rivers state police spokesman Ireju Barasua nonetheless denied that members of his force were involved. A similar denial came from the local SSS office.

Weekly Star editor Obinna Ahiaidu said it took him several days to locate his boss. After being held secretly for six days, Sikpi was finally brought before the Port Harcourt high court on 17 October and charged on seven counts of false information in reports about money-laundering by Rivers state governor Peter Odili, clashes between troops and separatist militia in the River Niger delta, and former Liberian President Charles Taylor’s presence in Nigeria.

Sikpi pleaded not guilty but the judge refused to free him on bail and ordered him kept in custody until another hearing scheduled for 26 October.

Section 36 of the Nigerian constitution says that a person is “entitled to a fair hearing in public within a reasonable time” and must “be presumed to be innocent until he is proved guilty.” Section 39 guarantees freedom of expression, “including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.”

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