LETTER:Numerous injustices at the trial of Nigerian playwright

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The Independent Online
From Mr Michael Birnbaum, QC

Sir: You report today on your front page the death sentence handed out to the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and his co-defendants by a "special tribunal" in Nigeria ("Playwright sentenced to death", 31 October). In March of this year, I went to Port Harcourt in Nigeria to observe the proceedings of this "special tribunal" on behalf of the Bar Human Rights Committee and the Law Society.

Fifteen men were charged with the brutal murder of four Ogoni chiefs in a riot in Rivers State on 23 May 1994. The president of Mosop (the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People), Ken Saro-Wiwa, and two others were alleged to have incited the other 12 defendants to commit the murders. The Federal Military Government had decreed that the trial should take place before a "Civil Disturbances Special Tribunal". Its members, two judges and a military officer, were nominated by the president, General Abacha. Its decisions were to be subject only to confirmation by the Provisional Ruling Council of Nigeria. There was to be no right of appeal, even though death is the mandatory punishment for murder in Nigeria.

Abuses abounded at the trial. For example, Lt Col Okuntimo, one of the prime movers in the prosecution of the defendants, insisted on being present at their conferences with counsel. Astonishingly, and despite the protests of the defence, the tribunal decided that it would hear two trials concurrently, one of five and the other of 10 defendants.

The vast majority of the witnesses were common to both trials. Therefore the prosecution could call all their witnesses twice, while each defendant would have only one opportunity to cross-examine and would be in peril of conviction based on evidence that he had not even heard.

The nature of the evidence, much of it inconsistent and confused, had a strong whiff of corruption about it. The two principal prosecution witnesses against Saro-Wiwa had sworn affidavits alleging that they and many of their fellow witnesses had been bribed to give false evidence. Other witnesses who, in their first statements had made no claim even to have seen the murders, later made statements claiming to identify some of the killers.

My concerns about the injustice of the proceedings and the tribunal's lack of independence, published in a report by Article 19 in June, are shared by many other observers. Amnesty International adopted three of the defendants, including Ken Saro-Wiwa, as prisoners of conscience.

Now nine of the defendants have been convicted and sentenced to death. About 20 detainees are still in custody. Many, including the British government, have called for the death sentences to be commuted. This does not go far enough. It implies that the verdicts are legitimate and ignores the plight of those as yet untried. Supporters of the rule of law should press for the quashing of the guilty verdicts and the release of the detainees.

Yours sincerely,

Michael Birnbaum


London, EC4

31 October