The Federal High Court, Abuja, yesterday ordered the release of the convener of #RevolutionNow protest, Omoyele Sowore.Justice Taiwa Taiwo, who gave the order, urged the Department of State Services (DSS) to release Sowore to his lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN), who must produce the accused person whenever the court wants him to appear over charges brought against him.
Sowore, who is the publisher of the news website, Sahara Reporters, and presidential candidate of the African Action Congress (AAC) in the 2019 election, was arrested on August 3 by the DSS, two days before his planned rally tagged RevolutionNow.A few days after his arrest and detention, precisely on August 8, the DSS obtained permission of the Federal High Court to detain him in its custody for another 90 days for alleged terrorism offence, but the court granted 45 days.
Efforts by Sowore and his counsel to abridge the time proved abortive as the court declined to hear their plea.Falana had tried to explain to the court that it was misled by the DSS into granting the request. Although the court had fixed that day for hearing on the application, Justice Nkeonye Maha, however, refused every move to entertain the motion on the ground that she lacked the power to vacate or review an order made by a court of equal jurisdiction. “The court has given an order; do I have the power to set aside (an) order of a court of equal jurisdiction?”
Justice Maha held that since Justice Taiwo, who granted the order would be back soon, Falana should return to him or rather channel his application to the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court.But Falana insisted that even though the other party was asking for adjournment, the court had the power to abridge the date. “My Lordship will do justice to the matter, otherwise, the man will be there for 40 days, which is not in the interest of justice,” he prayed.
With the failure of that plea, the activist Sowore spent the whole 45 days in the DSS custody. But yesterday, the parties returned to the same Justice Taiwo, who ordered an immediate release of Sowore to his lawyer. The judge, however, held that since the charges of terrorism had already been filed against Sowore, he must deposit his international passport and other travel documents to the court to guarantee his availability for trial.
Earlier, Justice Taiwo stood down the case after hearing arguments from both parties. Falana had argued that the order issued by the court on August 8, permitting the DSS to hold the activist for 45 days had expired on September 21. He, therefore, prayed the court to issue a consequential order releasing Sowore from the custody of DSS.
But the counsel to DSS, G.O Agbadua, told the court that since the charges had been filed against the activist on September 20, it was lawful to continue to keep him until arraignment.Falana kicked against Agbadua’s position on the ground that the filing of charges could not metamorphose into a detention order, adding that a citizen could not detain a citizen in anticipation of arraignment.
Agbadua had earlier withdrawn the application filed by the DSS seeking the extension of the period of detention of Sowore for another 20 days. He based his request on the ground that charges had been filed against the activist. Consequently, Falana withdrew Sowore’s application for bail on the ground that the application had become an academic exercise since the order of detention had expired.
With the expiration of the detention order and the withdrawal of the DSS’ request to further keep Sowore in custody, Falana, therefore, urged the court to order the release of his client. Justice Taiwo, in his ruling, agreed with Falana and consequently, ordered the immediate release of Sowore from custody.In a reaction to the ruling, the Yoruba socio-cultural organization, Afenifere described it as a courageous demonstration by the court.
The Spokesman of the group, Mr. Yinka Odumakin, who argued that it was wrong in the first instance for any court to have ordered Sowore’s detention beyond 45 days without trial, said “the onus is now on Sowore to take appropriate action when he is eventually set free.”
On the possibility of the government obeying the court order, Odumakin said: “Whatever action the government takes after the ruling will further expose it and its disposition to obeying the rule of law.”Also, a delegate to the 2014 National Conference, Col. Tony Nyiam (rtd), appealed to President Muhammadu Buhari to ensure that the court’s ruling is obeyed. According to him, “The continuing detention of Sowore, former National Security Adviser (NSA), Col. Sambo Dasuki (rtd) and the leader of Nigeria’s Shiites group, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, after the court ruling undermines the rule of law.”
The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) described the court’s ruling as “a victory for the rule of law, human rights and judicial independence.”In a statement, the group’s Deputy Director, Kolawole Oluwadare, said: “It is a huge relief that Sowore will be freed and can finally return to his family and journalism work. He should never have been detained in the first place. The Nigerian authorities should now withdraw all the charges against him and allow freedom of expression and media freedom to flourish. It’s good for everyone.”
Some lawyers also reacted to the ruling. To Folabi Kuti, a partner in Perchstone and Graeys, Lagos the bail is perfectly in accordance with the sacred duty of the law (its enforcers and interpreters) to entrench the rule of law, and its appurtenances.“One of these is that the liberty of an innocent person (until the contrary is proven in a competent court of law) is not lightly denied or interfered with. Man is born free. Law imposes restrictions or limitations for, inter alia, investigatory activities of the law prosecutor. The 45 days appear a long time, unless satisfactory evidence is shown otherwise, to warrant continued detention of a suspect pending investigation.”
Kayode Omosehin, a partner in Koriat & Co., said the news of the court’s order directing the release of Sowore had a significant impact on the nation’s democracy at large and, specifically, on the independence of judiciary, supremacy of rule of law and attitude of the executive to obedience of court’s orders.
“We read in the media that the government has charged Mr. Sowore with conspiracy and attempt to commit treason by calling for #RevolutionNow protest; money-laundering, and for insulting President Buhari. First, I will like to state that those who drafted the charges are doing a great disservice to the present government. A criminal charge against a private citizen over his or her criticism against an elected leader is very undemocratic and smacks of the dark days of military dictatorship. I honestly do believe that President Buhari is either unaware or improperly advised on the charge.