Thorn in side of Nigeria generals

Condemned: Human rights groups fighting for Ken Saro-Wiwa's release say he was denied a fair trial

Ken Saro-Wiwa, the writer and environmental activist sentenced to death yesterday, has been a thorn in the side of the Nigerian government ever since his Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People began to campaign against the operations of the Shell oil company five years ago.

Mosop aimed to force Shell to repair environmental damage caused by its activities, and to pass a greater share of oil revenues to the 500,000 Ogoni people, crammed into their 400-square-mile territory.

The region, dotted with oil spills, contaminated water and gas flares, is one of the most polluted on the planet. Mosop protests forced Shell to halt operations in mid-1993. In August, the Nigerian military encouraged neighbouring ethnic groups to attack the Ogonis, and used mobile "kill-and-go" police to attack demonstrations.

Mr Saro-Wiwa's stance provoked divisions among the Ogoni, but the moderates were sidelined by a Mosop intolerance and government repression.

The tribunal that condemned Mr Saro-Wiwa and three others for the murder of four Mosop members has been sitting in the oil city of Port Harcourt since February.

Human rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch/Africa, have been campaigning for the trial to be stopped. "The tribunal lacks independence and impartiality and has been the subject of intense international criticism", said a recent report by Human Rights Watch.

The murders of the four Mosop activists took place in May last year. Mr Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues are alleged to have carried out the killings because the men were selling out to the military government. Two of the murdered men were his in-laws and the other two close friends.

Campaigners for the release of the accused admit Mr Saro-Wiwa had differences with the murdered men over the leadership of Mosop but contend that the four men were murdered by government agents bent on discrediting Mosop.

The military regime of General Sani Abacha has been trying to suppress the secessionist movement which is demanding compensation from Shell for pollution of Ogoni land by nearly 100 on-shore oil wells.

Oil export revenue accounts for about 90 per cent of Nigeria's foreign exchange, and a 1978 decree ruled that all land where oil is found belongs to the federal state.

"The land is so devastated environmentally that fishermen and farmers cannot sustain their lives,'' Dr Owens Saro-Wiwa told the Independentshortly before the verdict on his brother, and co-defendants, was announced. "The government and the oil companies did not like the demands being made by our organisation. They are prepared to do anything so that other ethnic groups in Nigeria will not start agitating."

Dr Owens Saro-Wiwa, who granted the interview at a clandestine location in Lagos, is on the run. He claimed that his brother had been tortured, more than 30 Mosop activists are in detention and that hundreds of Ogoni campaigners are in hiding from the Nigerian security services. "My brother's lawyers were detained and persecuted," Dr Owens Saro-Wiwa said. "Witnesses were discouraged from giving evidence by harassment and bribery."

In a statement to the Ogoni Civil Disturbances Tribunal in September, Ken Saro-Wiwa said that after his arrest he was tortured, and denied food and medical attention. He also claimed that his mother and wife had been beaten.

Lawyers defending Mr Saro-Wiwa pulled out of the case in the summer in protest at the failure of state officials to submit key evidence to the tribunal.

The Human Rights Watch report, which was published in July after a three-week mission to Nigeria by the Washington-based group, says that at least 50 Ogonis were executed without trial by the security forces after the murders of the four pro-government Ogoni leaders.