Human rights lawyer, Mr Femi Falana (SAN), on Sunday, refuted the Department of State Services’ claim that its operatives did not disrupt proceedings at the Federal High Court, Abuja, in their bid to re-arrest his client, Mr Omoyele Sowore, on Friday.
Falana, in a statement, said contrary to the DSS’ denial issued on Saturday, the leader of the DSS team of operatives, who invaded the court, tendered an apology for their conduct when summoned after the incident by the presiding judge, Justice Ijeoma Ojukwu.
Falana said this just as the United States expressed concern about the re-arrest of Sowore after a court had ordered his release.
The DSS had, on Saturday, said the circulation of a video clip on an attempt to re-arrest Sowore in the courtroom was a product of mischief.
The DSS Public Relations Officer, Dr Peter Afunnaya, in a statement said the video was meant to serve as propaganda to bring the service to disrepute.
He had said when Sowore stepped out of the court and sighted operatives of the service on the premises, he ran back into the courtroom.
He said, “In a bid to shield him from an imaginary arrest, his uncontrollable supporters mobbed him while chanting ‘you can’t arrest him’, thus the pandemonium that ensued.”
But on Sunday, Falana said the inability of the DSS operatives to defend their conduct prompted their subsequent apology to the judge, who was made to adjourn cases on her list following the invasion of her courtroom by the agency’s operatives.
He described the statement issued by the DSS spokesperson as “self-contradictory” and “an unsuccessful attempt to absolve the agency of responsibility for the invasion of the Federal High Court, Abuja Judicial Division, in general, the desecration of the Court 7 presided by Justice Ojukwu in particular, as well as the illegal re-arrest of Omoyele Sowore.”
He stated, “By the advantage of information technology, the whole world has placed responsibility for the gangsteric desecration of the court on the DSS.
“The DSS cannot extricate itself from the abominable acts of December 6, 2019.
“When I informed the court that fresh charges were being filed against our clients and that they could be re-arrested, the prosecution denied the plan.
“As soon as the case was adjourned, the DSS pounced on Sowore and caused a disruption of the proceedings of the court.
“Having taken over the courtroom, Justice Ojukwu hurriedly rose and asked the registrar to adjourn all other cases.
“After the learned trial judge had risen for the day, she summoned the heads of the prosecution and defence teams to her chambers.
“When the lead prosecutor, Dr Liman Hassan (SAN), denied knowledge of the invasion of her court, she directed him to invite the head of the DSS team.
“When challenged to justify the invasion of the court, the officer could not. He apologised to Justice Ojukwu on behalf of the DSS.
“The judge then directed the officer to withdraw the DSS operatives from the courtroom.
“The directive was complied with as the operatives withdrew from the courtroom, but rushed out to join their colleagues who had taken over the entire court house.”
He demanded the release of Sowore “in obedience to court orders, pending the verdict of the court in their trial.
“We equally call for the release of all other political detainees and criminal suspects, who have been admitted to bail, pending trial by competent courts.”
He also demanded a stop to the “bizarre harassment of courts” which he said “cannot be tolerated under a democratically elected government that claims to operate under the rule of law.”
Falana noted that the operatives’ “abominable desecration” of the court on Friday was covered live by domestic and international media and journalists, some of whom he said were victims of the operatives’ acts of “gangsterism, barbarism and brutalisation” that day.
Pointing out contradictions in the DSS statement, Falana noted that while the agency argued in one breath that “the arrest of Sowore was ‘stage-managed’ by his supporters in order to give the service a bad name, it admitted in another “that officers of the service arrested Sowore outside the court.”
Calling for Sowore’s release, he said, “Having declared that the service arrested Sowore ‘outside the court’, despite the ‘stage managing’ argument, what the Nigerian people want to see happen is the immediate release of Sowore, pending his trial as ordered by the court.”
He further picked holes in the security agency’s statement blaming Friday’s incident on Sowore’s supporters.
He noted that the DSS operatives involved in Friday’s incident, including the one seen to be seizing and pinning down Sowore, were identifiable.
Falana said the operatives appeared in different types of wears with some of them even wearing masks.
He stated, “Regardless of the form of appearance, the officers of the service inside Court No. 7 were identifiable by their roles and acts of seizing Sowore and pinning him down.
“It is utter poor reasoning to say that Sowore’s supporters were also those bent on injuring him in order to arrest him.
“The argument of the service in this respect is as unfortunate and pitiable as the earlier argument of the service in respect of the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi, who was once accused of wanting to set ablaze his own house.
“If Sowore’s supporters subjected him to such brutalisation in the presence of the DSS operatives why were they not arrested for contravening the provisions of the Anti-Torture Act, 2017? Or were the DSS operatives expecting the supporters of a defendant wanted by the state to kill him in their presence?”
He noted that “Before submitting himself for arrest, Sowore had rightly demanded a warrant of arrest and a detention order, but the DSS operatives were unable to produce either.”
He said notwithstanding the failure of the operatives to produce any document to justify the arrest, he and members of his defence team took the decision that he should accompany Sowore to the DSS headquarters “in view of his physical brutalisation inside the courtroom and the open threat to his life”.
He added, “I did and ensured that he was driven in my car to the DSS headquarters where I handed him over to the officers on duty.
“Thereafter, I requested a meeting with the head of the DSS, but I was informed that he was not in the office.”
He added that the DSS allegation that Sowore held meetings with some people could not be justified by the agency.
He asked, “Why did the prosecution not inform the trial court that the defendant had breached his bail condition?”
Faulting the DSS’ self-adulation as “a law-abiding institution,” Falana asked, “But why did it refuse to comply with the order of Justice Taiwo to release Sowore?
“Why did the DSS threaten to report the judge to the NJC for granting bail to Sowore?
“Why did the DSS subject the order of Justice Ojukwu for the release of Sowore to its own approval by asking the sureties already verified by the judge to report themselves to the DSS?
“Why did the DSS wait for the 24-hour ultimatum issued by the trial judge before releasing Sowore and Bakare?”
When contacted on Sunday, Afunnaya insisted that the DSS position stated in its press statement on Saturday was the true reflection of what transpired on Friday.
The DSS PRO said this in response to an enquiry by The PUNCH over a claim by Sowore’s counsel that DSS operatives went to Justice Ojukwu to apologise for invading her courtroom. He stated, “Our statement on what transpired was explicit.”
Officials of the DSS had on Friday invaded the Federal High Court in Abuja and rearrested Sowore, who was released alongside his co-defendant, Olawale Bakare, earlier on Thursday after they had spent four months in the DSS custody.
The DSS had also defied the court order that granted them bail, even after meeting their bail conditions, in spite of several appeals and protests to secure their release.
Sowore was arrested on August 3, 2019 over a planned protest, which he tagged ‘#RevolutionNow’ and was alongside Bakare charged with treasonable felony for allegedly planning to overthrow the government with the planned protest.
Respect for judicial independence, key tenet of democracy– US
The DSS actions have generated more reactions. The United States and the pan-Yoruba socio-cultural group, Afenifere, expressed concern over the re-arrest and detention of Sowore.
The US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour in a tweet on Saturday evening advised the Federal Government to respect the rule of law, judicial independence, political and media freedom, saying they represented the key tenets of democracy.
The tweet from the verified handle of the bureau, which operates under the US State Department read, “We are deeply concerned that #Sowore has been re-detained in #Nigeria, shortly after a court ordered he be released on bail. Respect for rule of law, judicial independence, political and media freedom, and due process are key tenets of #democracy.”
Afenifere, in a statement by its spokesman, Yinka Odumakin on Sunday, berated the Presidency for defending Sowore’s arrest in court by masked DSS operatives, describing the incident as “a coup against the judiciary.”
It said, “If there is any sign that the country has slipped into the abyss of totalitarian rule, it is the unfortunate statement by the Presidency on Sowore.”
The Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, on its part, called for the disbandment of the DSS.
The National President of the CDHR, Dr Osagie Obayuwana, in a statement on Sunday, said because the DSS had shown itself to be unworthy, the matter had gone beyond the sacking of just the leadership of the agency.
Presidency defends DSS, says agency is right
But the Presidency on Sunday defended the DSS , saying that the agency acted within its constitutional powers to halt any move to destabilise the country.
It stated that in doing so, the DSS did not need the permission of President Muhammadu Buhari to act in order to protect democratic governance in Nigeria.
It argued that a man calling for a revolution against a government that came out of an election he (Sowore) contested and lost was not just a citizen expressing his freedom.
The Presidency was reacting to insinuations surrounding the arrest, especially the impression that Buhari was behind Sowore’s travails.
The Presidency’s reactions were contained in a statement by the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Mr Garba Shehu, in Abuja.
It stated that no government would fold its arms and allow a country it had a duty to safeguard to be brought down by someone the Presidency said went outside the bounds of activism.
It said, “The DSS does not necessarily need the permission of the Presidency in all cases to carry out its essential responsibilities that are laid down in the Nigerian Constitution, which was the foundation for the restoration of democracy in our country in 1999.
“However, it should not surprise anyone who has followed his actions and words that Sowore is a person of interest to the DSS.
“Sowore called for a revolution to overthrow the democratically elected government of Nigeria.
“He did so on television, and from a privileged position as the owner of a widely read digital newspaper run from the United States of America.
“He founded an organisation, Revolution Now, to launch, in their own words, ‘Days of Rage’, with the publicised purpose of fomenting mass civil unrest and the elected administration’s overthrow.
“No government will allow anybody to openly call for destabilisation in the country and do nothing.”
The Presidency noted further that having contested the February 23 poll and lost, it would be inappropriate to describe Sowore as an ordinary citizen using the social media to publicise his views.
It explained, “Mr Sowore is no ordinary citizen expressing his views freely on the social media and the Internet.
“He was a presidential candidate himself, who ran and lost as the flag bearer of the African Action Congress in the February 23 general elections.
“Nigeria’s democracy was a long time in the making, and was achieved after decades of often harsh, military-led overthrows of government, the kind of situation Sowore was advocating.”
Go to N’Assembly, President tells those opposing DSS
The Presidency also said anyone who had a problem with DSS should approach the National Assembly.
Shehu, who spoke on Sunday Politics, a live programme of Channels Television, fielded questions on the rearrest of Sowore.
The presidential aide said, “The secret service of the country has enormous powers under the constitution. If anybody has a problem with that, they can go to the National Assembly and seek a review of such powers.”
NBA disowns its Twitter post calling for Buhari’s impeachment
Meanwhile, the Nigerian Bar Association, on Sunday denied a statement attributed to it through its Twitter handle, calling for Buhari’s impeachment in the aftermath of the invasion of the Federal High Court in Abuja by the operatives of the DSS.
Through its official Twitter page, @NigBarAssoc, the association had called on the National Assembly to pass a resolution sacking the DSS Director General, Yusuf Bichi, and to institute impeachment proceedings against the President should he fail to comply with the legislative resolution.
In a statement on Sunday by its National Publicity Secretary, Kunle Edun, the NBA restated its condemnation of Friday’s conduct of the DSS operatives and called on the agency to apologise to the Nigerian public. It, however, said it neither called for Buhari’s impeachment nor involved the National Assembly in the matter.
APC attacks PDP, Atiku
The All Progressives Congress asked the Peoples Democratic Party and its presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, to apologise for lying to Nigerians over Sowore’s re-arrest.
The party, in a statement by its National Publicity Secretary, Lanre Issa-Onilu, said the facts about the re-arrest were skewed by the opposition to mislead Nigerians.
The statement read, “Following the recent court drama that greeted the resumed trial of the convener of #RevolutionNow, Mr Omoyele Sowore, the PDP and its defeated presidential candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, have typically chosen to present and spread their concocted ‘alternative facts’ and lies on the incident.
“The PDP and Atiku, in their dubious attempt at painting the APC government bad by all means, have chosen to exercise no restraint whatsoever in spreading falsehood. We would continue to reiterate the need for Nigerians to be wary of these people who are bent on bringing our country down.”