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Why arraign for unlawful assembly if people have rights to protest – Femi Falana

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Mr Femi Falana, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and human rights advocates discusses the right to protest, dissidence and revolution in Nigeria in an interview with The NEWS editor, Ademola Adegbamigbe. He reminds Nigerians about how the Jonathan administration once arrested some APC leaders for staging a protest and holding them under the Terrorism Act. The opposition APC then went ballistic.

Why arraign for unlawful assembly if people have rights to protest - Femi Falana

But now the same APC that criticised Jonathan is now in power and is behaving the same way the PDP behaved. Excerpts:

What is your view on the travails of Omoyele Sowore now?

I met Mr. Sowore in the custody of the State Security Service in Abuja last week. He was in very high spirits. I believe that at the end of the day he will come out stronger and more committed to the task of nation building. At the same time he would have learnt some lessons from his travails. But Mr. Omoyele Sowore is in a familiar terrain. As a former student leader and as a publisher of the Sahara Reporters he has had a running battle with the neo colonial State. 

The State has a way of playing into his hands. The other day, an influential member of the ruling class wanted to liquidate the Sahara Reporters, an online medium published by Mr. Sowore. He filed a libel suit against him in a high court. And without hearing Mr. Sowore in the matter, the trial judge awarded N4 billion against the publishing outfit. We asked one of my colleagues, Mr. Stanley Imhanruor to take up the matter. He did and successfully ensured that the entire one sided judgment was quashed by the Court of Appeal while the N4 billon award was set aside.

 

In the instant case, Mr. Sowore was arrested before the revolution now protests took off. So he is only being interrogated over the statements made by him and certain people that he met. Meanwhile, those who were arrested for actually partaking of the protests in Lagos State, Osun State and Cross River State have been charged with unlawful assembly and breach of the peace in the Magistrate Courts. They have since been granted bail pending trial. If the State concedes that the Nigerian people have the fundamental right to protest peacefully why charge peaceful protesters with unlawful assembly? Is there peace in Nigeria to be breached by Mr. Sowore and his comrades? The Nigeria Police Force had announced that Mr. Sowore had committed treason, treasonable felony and terrorism. The State Security Service equally announced that he had concluded plans to overthrow the Buhari administration. If the security forces had reached those far reaching conclusions, what is the basis of having the suspect gaoled for 45 days? From my experience with cases of this nature, Mr. Sowore’s arrest and detention may turn out to be a storm in a teacup.

You have been critical of the government’s handling of the #RevolutionNow protest and its arrowhead. Are you not concerned about your own safety?

Seriously speaking, with the increasing wave of terrorism, kidnapping, armed robbery and other violent crimes nobody is really safe in Nigeria. But having been involved in human rights struggle for almost four decades, I have no cause to worry about my safety. In any case, I have experienced worse days under successive military juntas in the country. I have always defended victims of human rights abuse in Nigeria and other African countries. In fact, I have had cause in the past, to defend the human rights of some highly placed people in the ruling party and in the opposition.

 

It may interest you to know that when the Babangida junta detained General Buhari and his deputy, the late General Tunde Idiagbon for three years, I joined the campaign for their release. I did that in principle notwithstanding that the Buhari/Idiagbon junta had detained me under Decree 2 of 1984. Much later, I also defended the right of General Buhari and other ANPP leaders to protests against the rigging of elections under the Olusegun Obasanjo administration. That was when I was briefed by ANPP and other 10 opposition political parties to challenge the constitutional validity of obtaining police permit as a precondition for holding rallies. I handled the case from the Federal High Court to the Court of Appeal pro bono. Both courts upheld the fundamental right of Nigerians to protest without police permit.

So, why should I worry for defending the rights of the Nigerian people including dissident groups and critics of the government?  Those who are trying to demand that Amnesty International be expelled from Nigeria may wish to know that President Buhari and many leaders of the APC were once declared prisoners of conscience by the same organisation. I am only  worried and pained that some of the rights being eroded now had been fought for and won by the Nigerian people.

Critics said that it was the word, “revolution” that scared the government…

Mr. Sowore would still have been arrested if he had staged a peaceful protest without the use of the word ‘revolution’. The Bring Back Our Girls Campaigners who were protesting peacefully at the Unity Fountain in Abuja to remind the federal government of its responsibility to free the Chibok and Dapchi girls in the captivity of terrorists did not use the word ‘revolution’. But the Jonathan administration felt irritated and decided to ban their daily protests. I was briefed to challenge the ban. We did so successfully. I am talking of the case of Hadiza Bala Usman and Others v Commissioner of Police. In spite of the judgment, the Buhari administration decided to ban the BBOG rallies. In fact, the Unity Fountain has been seized by the police to prevent Nigerians from protesting against constituted authority. There is a place designed for peaceful protests in front of the national assembly complex. I had participated in a rally there. But to ban any form of protests within the premises the members of the public have been denied access to the national assembly complex.

 

The Shiites were holding peaceful rallies in Abuja and some cities in the northern part of the country to press for compliance with the order of the federal high court for the release of their leader, Sheikh Elzakzaky and his wife. They did not call for revolution. But the army and the police attacked the Shiites and killed scores of them including children. Even though the Shiites defied the proscription of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria and continued their street protests. But since the federal government announced that it would allow ElZak Zaky and his wife to travel to India for medical treatment in line with the order which I had secured from the Honourable Justice Darius Khobo of the Kaduna State high court, the protests have stopped. This is why a government which rules by law must kowtow to the rule of law and respect the human rights of citizens. 

But the government is yet to appreciate that protest marches and demonstrations are part of the freedom of expression and assembly guaranteed by sections 39 and 40 of the Constitution and judicially recognised by the Court of Appeal in the case of IGP v ANPP. In fact, the law has been amended to impose a duty on the Police to provide security for protesters. Under the Olusegun Obasanjo administration, we had reached a stage whereby the federal government had to obtain court orders to stop protests and strikes. So, we cannot go back to the era of brutalising placard carrying protesters and charging them with terrorism or treasonable felony. Since I am using the law to defend my clients, I have no cause to worry over my safety.

Is this the first time that protesters will be charged for terrorism or treason?

This is not the first time that protesters have been charged with terrorism under the current political dispensation. In June 2014, a political rally was held by the APC at Ado Ekiti in preparation for the gubernatorial election of that year. The rally was led by Governor Kayode Fayemi in broad day light. But the police disbanded the rally and arrested the then Ekiti State Commissioner for local government, Mr. Niyi Afuye and 11 other APC leaders. They were taken to Abuja and charged with terrorism under the Jonathan administration.

Yes, for taking part in a peaceful rally. Not unexpectedly, the APC took the PDP-led government to the cleaners for charging its members with the offence of terrorism. As the defence counsel in the case, I raised serious preliminary objections to the charge. Sensing that the charge could not be sustained, the Police hurriedly withdrew it. Can you imagine that the APC-led government has now turned round to accuse Mr. Sowore of committing the offence of terrorism for planning to lead the revolution now protests?

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