Charles Okah writes the Catholic Church from Kuje Prison over October 1, 2010 bomb blast Trials
GREETINGS in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I hope this letter meets you well. The reasons I choose to direct this letter to you are that I am a Catholic and you are an old boy of my alma mater, St. Gregory’s College, Lagos. I write from Kuje Prison Abuja where two other Catholics and I have been languishing in solitary confinement for two years on trumped-up charges relating to the October 1, 2010 bomb attack claimed by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND).
My name is Charles Tonbra Okah, aka Billy Bones. On October 16, 2010 operatives of the State Security Services, on a warrant invaded my residence in Apapa GRA claiming that I was the suspected spokesman for MEND using the pseudonym “Jomo Gbomo.” My eldest son, visiting from the United States where he attends the University of Kansas (KU) was also arrested.
Lifeline from captors
At the SSS Headquarters Abuja where we were flown blindfolded with our legs and hands bound, my ‘cooperation’ was solicited for something completely different to my surprise. My captors threw me a lifeline; offering me freedom and a lucrative contract in exchange for false testimony against my younger brother Henry, who is resident in South Africa. I was to write a false statement claiming to have been told by Henry about the bomb plot and naming the following persons as his conspirators: Former head of state, General Ibrahim Babangida, Chief Raymond Dokpesi, Mallam Nasir El Rufai, Chief Timipre Sylva, and Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan. I bluntly refused.
To maintain pressure on me, I was told that my son would be implicated in the bomb matter, my containers of legitimate imports then at the Tin Can Port would be impounded and my business destroyed. I still did not budge, tossing their lifeline back with royal disdain. When they realized I was not going to connive in their scheme, they became formal and reverted to the main reason for my arrest. I was asked for the MEND password, which I told them I did not know. They bound me in a chair, took off my trousers and clamped a device to my penis. My legs were then put inside a basin of water. The device when turned on passed a high voltage of electricity to my body and I lost consciousness.
This was on Monday, October 18, at about 6pm. When I regained consciousness, I discovered I was at the National Hospital emergency room. I remember the doctors asking why I had trauma marks on my chest where the SSS doctor performed Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation (CPR). The SSS operatives were evasive in answering questions at the hospital. That night I was released and taken to rest for the night at the State House Clinic. That was the last time a torture was carried out on me.
My son was eventually released after Mr. Femi Falana visited in the company of my wife after a month of being denied access to a lawyer. However, my containers have been impounded up to date and my bank account frozen. The SSS stopped asking about the MEND password after Jomo Gbomo made another statement while I was in their custody but refused to still let me go because I did not cooperate earlier with them. Meanwhile in the ongoing trial in South Africa, the same people who say I am JG also accuse Henry of being the same Jomo Gbomo.
Double standard in Kuje Prison: On December 24, 2010 we were remanded in Kuje prison as a result of our application to be removed from the SSS detention cell. Unknown to us, the SSS passed instructions from “above” to the prison authorities to carry out “special treatment” in order to stampede us into a trial towards conviction. For 2 years we have been locked up in solitary confinement, are not allowed to exercise or get sunlight outside and are forced to sleep on the floor when bunk beds are available. Even a court order by Justice Gabriel Kolawole to the prison for a change in our confinement style was ignored after it was superseded by an ‘order from above.”
In late 2011, while locked up inside our cellblock, prison officials clothed in protective apparel, facemasks and gloves carried out fumigation without opening us to wait outside. Our protests fell on deaf ears and by the time they were finished we were in distress. The Youth Corps doctor on call tried her best within her limits to the emergency she was confronted with.
The poisonous gas and barbaric action reminiscent of the Nazi concentration camp’s infamous gas chambers, eventually led to the death of one Francis Osuwo, aka Gboko, also roped into this case by the SSS and a man I have never met before. Interestingly, the four persons in detention were strangers to each other except for one Obi Nwabueze who is a family friend and close associate of Henry.
The fumigant whose chemical constituents were never relayed to us has affected my neurological system and a neurologist of the National Hospital, Professor Bwala, has put me on a daily prescription of strong neurological medication. While the Boko Haram suspects at Kuje prison are allowed to worship in the prison mosque, we have never set foot in the prison chapel.
They are also enjoying privileges such as cable television, radio, liberty to move within the prison walls, bunk beds to sleep on and phone calls to their families. We are denied all of the above. When I asked the current Controller of FCT Command the reason for the disparity, he said “the fear of Boko Haram is the beginning of wisdom.” He further said the Moslem community was concerned about their welfare in custody.
Double standard in the court
Even in the courts where justice is supposed to be blind, the double standard is glaring. While Senator Ndume, accused of being a financier to Boko Haram was given bail by the same Judge presiding over our case, we have been denied bail. I understand that this Senator was permitted by the same court to travel on his religious obligation to Mecca for the lesser Hajj while we are refused from attending mass in a chapel less than 50 metres from our cell block.
The court is willing to permit the senator approval to travel abroad for his medical check if he can provide proof that such check up is not done locally. Meanwhile, I have been denied my application to go on a compulsory checkup, which in my case is mandatory for a kidney donor, having donated my left kidney to my mother 30 years ago.
Our cases have been adjourned repeatedly for cruelly long durations. The last time I appeared in court was March 2012 and the next adjourned date is January 31, 2013, that is if that date will not be shifted again under a flimsy excuse. All we ask is for a free and fair trial from an independent Judiciary that should release us instead of holding us as scapegoats over an obvious power show.
While this government continues holding us hostage, our families are becoming destitute. Our rights to freely worship as Catholics is being infringed by the state who have more respect for Islam when all religions should be treated equally.
Double standards in the polity: The National Security Adviser, Col Sambo Dasuki (rtd.) was quoted as saying that the government of President Goodluck Jonathan has the phone numbers of suspected Boko Haram sponsors. Later the Inspector General of Police said certain individuals had been put on a “watch list” as suspected Boko Haram sponsors.
Now the big question is why did the government not simply have our phone numbers and put us also on its ‘watch list” while we move about freely? They did not hesitate to arrest us, clamp us on trumped-up charges and detain us on flimsy excuses. They did not merely talk; they took action even in South Africa where my brother was arrested since 2010. Is there a better word to describe this other than hypocrisy?
The same government eager to negotiate with Boko Haram, which claimed responsibility for over 100 attacks where Catholics have suffered the brunt, have refused to negotiate with MEND and continue to delude themselves that all is well. Why would this government expect Boko Haram to unmask it leaders and negotiate when they can see that perceived leaders and supporters of MEND are being persecuted and jailed?
I welcome a fact-finding visit from the Church in the company of credible Human Rights groups to verify our allegations. On the two occasions Kuje Prison was visited by the Bishop of Abuja during the Christmas of 2010 and 2011, he was surreptitiously steered away from where we are held hostage and I believe he has no idea of what is going inside Kuje prison.
Our prayers is that leaders of our churches will be more sensitive and proactive in politics of the land that touches the lifes of their followers and not leave delicate issues solely in the hands of corrupt and selfish politicians, and majority of the population rid of a “Potiphar” mentality who believe lies when told by SSS.