26th March, 2013
Henry Okah, leader of Nigeria’s militant group, Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta, MEND, was jailed Tuesday by South African court for 24 years after he was convicted of 13 terrorism charges over twin bombings in Abuja in 2010.
“Effectively, the accused Okah is therefore sentenced to 24 years imprisonment,” said Judge Neels Claassen.
Twelve people were killed in the bomb attacks in the Nigerian capital as the country was celebrating the 50th anniversary of its independence.
The state argued that Okah showed little remorse during the trial, and that his intentions in the bombings were to “obtain maximum casualties.”
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), which in 2010 was a well-equipped armed group fighting for a greater share of the Delta oil wealth, claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Okah, who has permanent residency in South Africa, has denied any involvement in the bombings, claiming the charges against him were politically motivated.
He was also found guilty of terrorism charges related to two explosions in March 2010 in the southern Nigerian city of Warri, a major hub in the oil-rich Delta region.
His lawyer JP Marais said he plans to appeal the conviction, while the state is also considering a challenge to the sentence.
“We are going to appeal the conviction,” said Marais, saying the defence was aiming for an acquittal of charges against Okah.
The court agreed to waive a 14-day rule for appeals to be lodged and papers are expected to be filed in about a month’s time, he added.
He said Okah was relieved that he had escaped a life sentence.
“I think he expected more. He expected (a) life sentence, Marais told AFP, adding that “his wife was very relieved”.
He indicated that the Supreme Court of Appeals will be petitioned if the High Court refuses the appeal.
State prosecutor Shaun Abrahams said the sentence included 12 years each for the Warri and Abuja attacks. He was also sentenced to 10 years for being a threat to South Africa, a term that will run concurrently.
Abrahams said the prosecution — which had asked for a maximum of life in prison — will consider appealing the sentence.
In his ruling the judge said it was important to impose a sentence that would prohibit South Africa from being seen as a safe haven for terrorists.
In a statement, MEND said it had noted the sentence “with incredulity” after a “sham trial” but warned that the result would not deter the militant group.
“We will remain dedicated to our cause until we achieve full justice and emancipation for the Niger Delta and its people,” spokesman Jomo Gbomo said in a statement.
Okah is thought to be the first foreign national to be tried for terrorism in South Africa. He has been in custody since his arrest in October 2010, a day after the Abuja bombings.
The trial which started in October 2010 has been marked by delays, as both the state and defence sought to strengthen their case.
He did not testify during trial, prompting the judge to say that his failure to take the stand meant the evidence against him remained uncontested.
He has had several run-ins with the law. In September 2007 he was arrested for arms and explosives trafficking in Angola and later extradited to Nigeria.
Police identified him as “an international gun-runner and a major oil bunkerer (thief) in the Niger Delta.”