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Defense Lawyer Alleges Intimidation at Oil Rebel Trial in Nigeria

A lawyer for an accused rebel leader in Nigeria's oil producing region says court security arrangements are intimidating and could compromise the integrity of the trial. For VOA, Gilbert da Costa in Abuja reports Nigeria's most prominent armed group has vowed to step up its attacks on oil installations to pressure the government to free its leader.

The closed trial of Henry Okah is taking place at the federal high court in the central Nigerian city of Jos, amid heavy security. The rebel leader, who is on trial for treason, terrorism, illegal possession of firearms and arms trafficking, could face the death sentence if convicted. Journalists are barred from covering the proceedings.

Okah has made two court appearances, characterized by a massive security cordon and the deployment of troops and secret police, backed by armored personnel carriers.

Access to the court premises has proved equally daunting, even for defense attorneys. Okah's supporters say he had been able to speak to his lawyers for only 30 minutes since the trial commenced.

Wilson Ajewa, a lawyer representing the militant, says the atmosphere at the courthouse is very intimidating.

"We are unhappy about the whole procedure, the procedural measures that have been used so far," said Ajewa. "Unfortunately, the public has not witnessed it. But we have been there and we are very uncomfortable. You need to go to the place and see what is happening there. It is a whole hell of a war situation."

An application to have an open trial was rejected by the court, citing national security concerns. Ajewa says that ruling will be challenged at a higher court.

"We will appeal that ruling to the Court of Appeal," said Ajewa. "We have several grounds, in due course we will make them known to the public. We are in a democracy and all other treason matters had been tried in public. We are really surprised why they do not want the matter to go public."

Anger among militants over what they see as government persecution of a man they hail as a freedom fighter risks causing further violence in the volatile Niger Delta region.

Okah's group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, has recently stepped up its attacks on oil facilities, cutting off hundreds of thousands of oil barrels per day in exports.

The group says it is considering a ceasefire appeal by U.S. presidential hopeful Barack Obama.