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Nigerian Oil Rebel Wins Appeal to Challenge Closed Trial


The suspected leader of Nigeria's main militant group has won the right to appeal to have his trial held in public. The move could help calm the rebel's well-armed supporters in the Niger Delta. Gilbert da Costa in Abuja has this report for VOA.

Lawyers for Henry Okah, the presumed leader of Nigeria's main militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) said an appeals court had accepted his bid to have the appeal heard in public.

This recent ruling could help quell violence in the restive Delta region.

Because Okah has the loyalty of several armed factions in the restive delta region, his supporters were suspicious of a trial held in secrecy. Okah could face the death penalty if convicted of treason and gun-running charges.

Nigeria President Umaru Yar'Adua has said Okah's trial at a federal court in the central city of Jos must be held in private for the sake of national security.

"Okah's trial has implications on national security and that is why our national security agencies advised, and insist that for national security reasons, he should be tried in camera. You cannot jeopardize national security for any reason," said Yar'Adua. "Henry Okah is being tried in camera and he has competent lawyers. And the Nigerian system ensures justice and justice will be done according to law."

Okah's lawyer, Wilson Ajuwa, remains optimistic of a favorable ruling by the court of appeal. He says a political solution represents the best option in resolving the Okah trial.

"It is a treason trial and we expect that the government will find a political solution to it. There was a ceasefire and there was progress in the Niger Delta before they arrested him and ever since things have taken a bad turn," said Ajuwa.

Ajuwa said the court had told both parties to file written briefs within 21 days and that it would consider the appeal in September.

Okah is thought to have been, until his 2007 arrest in Angola, spokesman for the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, Nigeria's foremost armed group. MEND has claimed responsibility for attacks against oil company and government targets in the past two years and has cut Nigeria's oil output by around a fifth since early 2006.

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