Amnesty International on Thursday accused Nigerian government and Cross River state government of manipulating the criminal justice system in order to keep detained Nigerian journalist, Agba Jalingo behind bars.
The human right group said Mr Jalingo’s detention, besides being a stain on Nigeria’s image, “shows just how far (Nigerian) authorities can go to silence critics.”
Mr Jalingo, the publisher of CrossRiverWatch, was arrested on August 22, 2019, over a report alleging that Cross River governor, Ben Ayade, diverted N500 million belonging to the state.
Mr Jalingo, who is facing treason charges, is detained in Calabar prison. The court has refused to grant him bail.
If convicted, he could face up to life in prison or the death penalty, Amnesty said.
Amnesty is among the several organisations within and outside Nigeria putting pressure on the Nigerian government to free the journalist declared a prisoner of conscience last year by the human right group.
“While Agba Jalingo is detained for his critical opinions, both Cross River and federal governments are collaborating, through the manipulation of the criminal justice system to keep him behind bars,” the Amnesty spokesperson, Sanusi Isa, told reporters in Calabar.
Other officials of Amnesty present at the press briefing were Damian Ugwu and Ayoola Emmanuel.
Amnesty said Mr Jalingo’s trial falls short of international standard of fairness and has exposed the weakness of Nigeria’s criminal justice system.
“Twice Agba Jalingo was denied bail. We are concerned that Agba Jalingo’s trial falls short of international standards of fairness, especially because the court has allowed witnesses to be masked and the trial to be held in secret.
“The flawed charges and sham trial of Agba Jalingo have exposed the inadequacies and manipulation of the Nigerian criminal justice system and an unacceptable contempt for human rights and the rule of law,” Mr Isa said.
“Governor Ben Ayade of Cross River State and the government of President Muhammadu Buhari must stop filing bogus and politically motivated charges against critics and start listening to what they have to say.
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“The case of Agba Jalingo is just one of many cases of blatant violations of the right to freedom of expression and media freedom in Cross River state and several parts of Nigeria. Joseph Odok was also unlawfully detained and later charged with terrorism solely for expressing critical opinion on social media.
“This pattern of repression in Cross River state flagrantly violates the Nigerian Constitution of 1999 (as amended) and international and regional human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights to which Nigeria is a state party.
“The Cross River state authorities must stop the repression. The authorities must respect, protect, promote and ensure the right to freedom of expression and media freedom,” the group said.
Amnesty said it would continue to “push” for Mr Jalingo’s “immediate and unconditional release.”
It said it would also work with other NGOs to hold the Cross River state government “to account for the increasing assault on human rights”.
Governor Ayade recently broke his silence on Mr Jalingo’s case, saying it is the federal government, and not Cross River state government, that is detaining the journalist.
“In court, it is Federal Government versus Agba Jalingo, not Cross River State,” Mr Ayade told reporters on January 27 at the presidential villa, Abuja, where he went to meet President Muhammadu Buhari.
“He’s in court for treason, a state does not have power to try anyone for treason, it’s not me.”
Mr Ayade said the journalist’s arrest and trial are in connection with Omoyele Sowore’s #RevolutionNow protest.
Mr Jalingo, the governor said, wanted to overthrow the government of President Buhari.
Mr Ayade described Mr Jalingo as his “brother”. He said he had been rendering help to the detained journalist until he (Jalingo) turned against him and began “blackmailing” him because, according to him, he was unable to give him some money he requested.
“Please don’t get it wrong, Agba Jalingo is not just from Cross River State, he’s not just from Obudu, where I also come from, he’s my brother.
“Please ask Agba Jalingo, that CrossRiverWatch, the first person to give him money to set up the office was myself. His official vehicle, it was me. I don’t have to list all of these, he knows that I have funded and supported him, but journalism stops where blackmail becomes part of your strategy.
“Today you need something, then Ayade is a good man and you start writing all the good things, but if I take my phone and show you our WhatsApp communication, you will call me a godly man. Today I need money to set up a computer school, tomorrow I need money to feed my birds, the other day I need to be INNOSON’s sole distributor in Cross River State, I do all that.
“But when I don’t get a thing right you go to the social media and write something as careless as Governor Ayade has taken N500 million to Russia. You impugned my father’s name, my character, my family name, for just a personal request that I’ve not met, out of many that I have met,” Mr Ayade said.
The governor, however, said he was working behind the scene to get Mr Jalingo released from detention.