By Tola Owoyele Via Foundation of Investigative Journalism (FIJ)
The moment the doors leading to Courtroom 1 of the high court in Oke-Mosan, Abeokuta, Ogun State, were thrown open, lawyers and observers, most of whom were plaintiffs, defendants and interested parties in the 10 cases slated for hearing on Tuesday, trooped in. Within five minutes, all the seats in the room became occupied.
This ultimately led to a problem, as some legal representatives who were to make appearances on behalf of their clients could no longer find a place to sit in the room. The situation later prompted officials of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) assigned to the courtroom to persuade most of the observers, who were already seated but whose cases were at the end of the list of ones to be heard on the day, to temporarily leave the room until the period their matters would be tabled before the court.
Despite the frenzy that heralded the much-anticipated hearings lined up for the day, none of the cases were heard in the end. Justice Oluremi Omowunmi Oguntoyinbo, the presiding judge, decided to call the legal representatives for the cases into her chambers one after the other to address the matters.
Friends and family members of Hammed Adewale Bashiru, a blogger and publisher of EaglesForeSight, were particularly disappointed by this development. They had hoped that Bashiru, who was arrested by security operatives in May, would be discharged and acquitted of all charges that day.
Bashiru, who was brought to court in handcuffs by heavily-armed policemen, waited for more than four hours, and had also hoped, like his loved ones, that he would freed. His hopes were dashed as the case was adjourned until October 6. The reason? Judges were about to embark on their annual vacation.
THE PUBLICATION THAT LED TO BASHIRU’S ARREST
In May, the State Security Service (SSS) in Ogun State took Bashiru to court for publishing a report on Dapo Abiodun, the governor of the state.
The security agency accused Bashiru of defamation of character and cybercrime, citing a publication made by the blogger in April. The publication was titled ‘2023; I Was Arrested (convicted) for Fraud in US, But APC Lacks Power to Disqualify Me — Governor Abiodun Bragged’.
The blogger was first arrested on April 29, two days after the publication, and later released on bail. However, he was rearrested on May 13 and has been in detention ever since. He would later be arraigned in court on May 24 on charges bothering on cyberstalking.
Between both arrests, Bashiru was also coerced by his accusers into deleting the story from his web page.
His decision to comply with the demands of his accusers did not change anything, as Bashiru is still in detention and most times paraded in handcuffs like a common criminal.
BASHIRU’S DETENTION TAKING A TOLL ON HIS AGEING FATHER
After Bashiru’s case was adjourned until October 6, Balikis, his sister, who was present in court, could not hide her displeasure.
While speaking with FIJ, Balikis said the continued detention of her brother was beginning to take its toll on the Bashiru family.
“I am terribly sad and can’t even describe how I feel right now. How can they continue to detain my brother for no just cause? This is totally unfair,” she said.
“Our lives as family members have not been the same since they arrested my brother the second time on May 13. We have been forced to abandon our normal lives and businesses and have been taking turns to visit him at the correctional centre in Ibara, just to be sure he is fine.
“We also have an ageing father who is really disturbed and saddened that his son is continuously being kept in jail for no concrete reason. This has really affected everyone of us in a very negative way.
“I hope the Ogun State Government does the right thing by freeing my brother so he can reunite with his family members.”
‘WHY PROSECUTE BASHIR AND NOT THE ORIGINAL PUBLISHER’?
Adeshina Afolabi, one of Bashiru’s friends, told FIJ he believed the blogger’s arrest was politically motivated.
“I think the court is being careful in treating this case because a governor is involved. To me, the continued detention of Bashiru is uncalled for,” Afolabi said.
“You can’t say you’re prosecuting someone and all you have done so far is to show up in court just once. Even when they decided to bring a witness to the stand on June 27, the person they presented told the court that he didn’t know much about the matter.
“This goes to show that they are deliberately keeping the defendant in detention for no concrete reason, and this is unfair. Today, being July 19, the SSS are also supposed to testify, but none of them showed up. This has been the case since the hearing started.
“The particular story Bashiru is even being persecuted for did not originate from him. It was culled from another news outlet. He got the story from the Peoples Gazette.”
THE CONTROVERSIAL STORY
The story as published by Peoples Gazette
On April 27, the Peoples Gazette published a story titled ‘I Was Arrested for Fraud in U.S., But APC Cannot Disqualify Me in 2023: Dapo Abiodun’.
The publication reported how the governor said the All Progressives Congress (APC) lacked the power to disqualify him come 2023 because of his alleged arrest in the United States over credit card fraud and forgery in 1986.
The story also covered how Ayodele Oludiran, an APC member, warned that the party might lose the governorship seat in Ogun State due to “the governor’s criminal history and its concealment from the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) despite swearing an oath”.
“It was this same story that Bashiru published on his blog. It wasn’t as if he fabricated an additional story,” one of Bashiru’s friends, who asked not to be named, told FIJ.
“He even credited the story to Peoples Gazette. So why are they hounding my friend and not the original source of the story? It’s uncalled for. It also shows power abuse.”
THIS IS IMPRISONMENT WITHOUT TRIAL, SAYS LAYER
After the adjournment of Bashiru’s hearing until October, Festus Ogun, his counsel, spoke to FIJ.
“Upon the unlawful arrest and illegal detention of Mr. Bashiru, my client, we have filed a fundamental human rights application to ensure the enforcement of his sacred human rights and the matter is slated for hearing in this same court (High Court Oke-Mosan, Abeokuta) on July 27,” Ogun said.
“Journalism should not be a crime in Nigeria. My client has not committed any crime. I do not believe that the right to freedom of expression as guaranteed under section 39 of the constitution should be subject to any restraint and abuse whatsoever by those in the position of authority.”
Ogun also expressed his displeasure with the way the prosecution team had failed to produce witnesses in court, leading to adjournments.
“We were informed today that the prosecution witness that ought to appear today did not show up. This automatically led to an adjournment and this was not the first time it would happen,” Ogun said.
“This also shows the seriousness and level of preparedness of the prosecution in ensuring a fair trial for my client. Their failure and refusal to produce their witness in court shows that they are only interested in persecuting him for no reason.”
The lawyer also spoke on the stringent bail condition handed to the blogger by the court.
“In fairness to the prosecution team, my client has been granted bail. The conditions surrounding the bail are, however, not favourable. They are quite stringent,” Ogun said.
“He is being asked to bring a level 15 officer who has a landed property in Abeokuta. We also require a business owner who would provide his company’s certificate of incorporation and a landed property and can also deposit a million naira.
“My client has also been asked to deposit a sum of N3 million naira. As we speak, my client cannot even boast of N100,000 in his account. He is just a blogger, a citizen reporter who does his craft to keep his community informed.
“We are, however, working to ensure that the bail conditions are reviewed. It is quite painful that the prosecution has refused to go after the Peoples Gazette and has chosen to go after a mere blogger. They only want to make a scapegoat of him.
“As a lawyer who stands against tyranny, I will do whatever it takes to rescue my client from the claws of these monsters who are currently holding him to ransom.
“My client does not have money, influential people and the resources, but truth and justice is on his side. This is being done in the interest of the freedom of speech that has got to be preserved in Nigeria.”
HOW DSS TRICKED BASHIR INTO IMPLICATING HIMSELF
When Bashiru spoke to FIJ, he said he was surprised that the SSS would continue to detain him over the issue.
“They said my continued detention is as a result of an order issued by the governor. This was a story I took from Peoples Gazette. I even quoted Peoples Gazette while making the story available on my blog,” Bashiru said.
“When I was arrested by the SSS, I was forced to pull down the story inside their interrogation room. A gun was pointed at me while I was being forced to do so. They also told me to post a rejoinder and I immediately did.
“I had to do as I was told, so I would not be killed. One of them even said they were capable of killing me and nothing would happen. In truth, when I was picked up, nobody knew my whereabouts.”
The blogger also alleged that some APC chieftains in the state had tried compelling him to only promote events and happenings that had to do with the party.
“As a blogger, parties would come and appeal to you to assist in promoting their campaigns. In this case, the APC wanted me to focus solely on their campaign. What this meant was that whenever I wanted to publish anything on politics, it would be about the party and it would not be against their movement,” Bashiru said.
“I however told them that I couldn’t afford to be a biased blogger. If I see anything going in other parties, it is my duty to let people know. If they have done anything good or bad, it is also my duty to let people know. I also told them that they couldn’t make me focus on APC alone. That was when I started having problems with them.”
Bashiru was first arrested on April 29, two days after the publication, and released on bail. He was rearrested on May 13, 2022, and has been in detention ever since.
According to Bashiru, the WhatsApp post he made to narrate his initial experience in the hands of the secret service led to his second arrest.
RESPONSE FROM OGUN STATE GOVERNMENT
Hammed Bashiru in Court on July 19
When FIJ contacted Kunle Somorin, the Chief Press Secretary to the Ogun State Governor, for comments on the blogger’s continued incarceration by the secret service in the state, he said:
“Was he taken to court by the governor? Ask the court and security people, please.”
Since his second arrest on May 13, Bashiru has spent 70 days at the correctional facility in Ibara, Abeokuta. If no miracle happens between now and October 6, the date for the next hearing on his case, he will have spent 148 days in jail.