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Nigeria Aims to Silence Dissent With Charges Against Prominent Journalist, Advocates Say

FILE - Prominent Nigerian journalist and activist Omoyele Sowore talks to the media after being released on bail by Nigeria's government, in Abuja, Nigeria, Dec. 24, 2019.

After months in prison and a prolonged legal fight, a prominent Nigerian journalist and activist is now facing charges of treason.

Omoyele Sowore, founder of the news website Sahara Reporters, appeared before the High Court in Abuja Wednesday and was given a date for a hearing in April. He was initially arrested last August by Nigeria’s Department of State Services, the country’s counterintelligence and counterterror force.

The arrest came after Sowore organized an event, Revolution Now, to protest corruption and allegedly unfair elections. He was released Dec. 5, rearrested the following day and released again Dec. 24, at the direction of Nigeria's attorney general.

'Spoken truth to power’

Sowore’s wife told VOA he is being punished for expressing dissent.

"Yele is currently in the situation that he is in because he has spoken truth to power. So as a result, he has been charged with treason,” Opeyemi Sowore told VOA.

She said Nigeria’s constitution protects freedom of assembly and peaceful protests, and she believes the charges against her husband are unfounded and intended to intimidate him and others who protest against the government.

"No evidence has been produced to support the case of treason. Again, the case is based on the fact that he organized a peaceful protest, which is not illegal in Nigeria,” she said. “So others who actually attended the protest were charged with unlawful gathering, and many of them are free at the moment.”

FILE - Supporters of the organizer of "Revolution Now," Omoyele Sowore, hold placards during a protest outside the Federal High Court in Abuja, Nigeria, Feb. 12, 2020.
FILE - Supporters of the organizer of "Revolution Now," Omoyele Sowore, hold placards during a protest outside the Federal High Court in Abuja, Nigeria, Feb. 12, 2020.

'Delay tactic'

The new charges come as Nigeria’s senate considers a controversial “Social Media Bill” that would criminalize spreading false information online and allow the government to block access to social media sites such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter. Critics say the tool will be used to silence critics.

Wade McMullen, senior vice president of programs and legal strategy at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, a nonprofit advocacy group, said the Nigerian government is intentionally dragging out the legal process against Sowore. Initial charges of money laundering and cyberbullying that were brought against him have been dropped, and court dates have been postponed, leaving him in legal limbo.

"What we're seeing now is an intentional delay tactic by the Nigerian government. Again and again, not to proceed with the case because they have no evidence — the charges are baseless and everybody knows that,” McMullen told VOA.

He believes the objective is to intimidate and silence other dissenting voices in the country.

"They're drawing out this prosecution to set an example and to silence other Nigerians who wish to gather around him and express their peaceful dissent in similar ways,” McMullen said.

Meanwhile, Sowore’s wife and two children, who live in the U.S. and are U.S. citizens, wait desperately to be reunited with him.

"It's hard. I have had to explain to them why their father was in prison. And second why their father can’t come home. My son has had nightmares,” Opeyemi Sowore told VOA. “And honestly it's just been really hard for them. The great thing is that children are resilient. And I pray that beyond this they are going to grow and live wonderful lives and be strong. But this has taken its toll on them. It’s taking its toll on our family.”