Playwright sentenced to death

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The Independent Online

Diplomatic Editor

Writers, governments and human rights groups around the world protested to the Nigerian military regime yesterday after a "special tribunal" sentenced playwright and political activist Ken Saro-Wiwa to death.

Mr Saro-Wiwa, 54, has become a spokesman for the minority Ogoni ethnic group in southern Nigeria and has waged a campaign against environmental pollution by oil companies which operate in the area. The Anglo-Dutch giant, Shell, is the main oil producer in the region.

The tribunal, hand-picked by Nigeria's military rulers, found Mr Saro- Wiwa and three others guilty of the murders of four men killed at a political rally last year, and sentenced them to hang. The convicted men have no right of appeal.

The verdict brought swift condemnation from the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN, a writers' organisation active in 90 countries on behalf of freedom of expression. Writers such as Ben Okri, Margaret Drabble and Harold Pinter demonstrated outside the Nigerian High Commission yesterday. Other demonstrators smashed windows in the building, daubed it with red paint, or chained themselves across the main entrance.

Describing the death sentences as "an outrage" the committee said the trial was politically motivated and alleged that witnesses had been bribed. The Foreign Office urged the Nigerian government to exercise clemency, calling the trial "a flawed judicial process".

Mr Saro-Wiwa's sentence is a blow to Britain's pursuit of diplomacy to bring about a return to civilian rule in Nigeria and it is certain to reinforce calls at next week's Commonwealth summit for sanctions against the regime. The Commonwealth Secretary General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, said: "I appeal to the Nigerian authorities to spare his life."

Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, Tony Lloyd, called for wide-ranging sanctions to be imposed on Nigeria.

In New York, the Human Rights Watch group issued a call to Nigeria's military ruler, General Sani Abacha, to "comply with international obligations by commuting the death sentences in this case". Article 19, an international campaign against censorship, said the British Government and others should demand that the sentences be quashed before the Commonwealth summit opens.

Tackling the generals, page 4