News / Africa

South African Judge Denies Bail to Nigerian Accused of Terrorism

Undated file photo of Henry Okah provided by the militant group Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta
Undated file photo of Henry Okah provided by the militant group Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta
Scott Bobb

A court in South Africa has denied bail to a Nigerian businessman who is facing terrorism charges in connection with bombings in Nigeria that killed a dozen people.

The South African judge denied bail to Nigerian businessman Henry Okah saying he believed he was the leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, known as MEND.

MEND claimed responsibility for two car bombings in Abuja on October first in which 12 people were killed and several dozen were wounded.

Okah has denied being a leader of MEND although he admits he sympathizes with its cause.

But the judge said Okah's wife, in a letter provided by the prosecution, called him the leader of MEND. He set the trial date for February.

Okah's lawyer, Rudi Krause, said he was not surprised at the decision and would appeal it.

"I have received instructions from Mr. Okah to proceed with the appeal and we will do so as soon as we can," said Krause.

Okah is accused of terrorism related charges including providing the two cars in which the bombs were detonated on Nigeria's national day. He is also accused of supplying military equipment to MEND through his security company in South Africa.

A great deal of the hearing centered on emails and cellular phones messages between him and known leaders of MEND in Nigeria. The prosecution said these proved he was involved in the attacks.

The defense argued that the messages did not constitute proof.

Nigerian authorities have also detained nine people, including Okah's brother, Charles, in connection with the attacks.

Okah was charged under a six-year-old, rarely-used South African law that allows the state to prosecute an individual for terrorism-related crimes even if the crimes were not committed on South African soil.

The Chairman of the South African Law Society's Criminal Law Committee, attorney William Booth, said the defense might challenge the law's constitutionality.

"Mr. Okah could possibly challenge the validity of this legislation in the Constitutional Court," said Booth. "He could argue very simply he's charged with crimes committed in Nigeria. And South African courts therefore don't have jurisdiction to deal with it."

He said another possibility would be for Okah to be extradited to Nigeria for trial. South Africa and Nigeria have an extradition agreement. But he notes that South African judges may not grant extradition if the defendant might receive the death penalty in the requesting country.

Booth said the bail hearing, which lasted more than one month, had become a mini-trial.

He said under South African law defendants charged with serious crimes, such as murder, must prove to the judge that they deserve bail, that they would not persecute witnesses, for example, or flee the country if released.

Observers said South African authorities, by trying Okah in South Africa, may be seeking to send a message that they will not tolerate activities that support terrorism, even if the attacks are committed in another country.

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