The sudden re-arrest Friday in a Nigerian courtroom of an activist and journalist from Bergen County just hours after he’d been freed on bail prompted Sen. Bob Menendez to threaten that country’s government with reprisals, while supporters implored President Trump to intercede.
Twitter posts captured the chaotic federal courtroom scene in the capital of city Abuja (see video below).
"New Jersey is watching, the United States is watching, and the world is watching," Menendez said Saturday morning, after Omoyele Sowore, of Haworth, was seized by members of Nigeria's Department of State Security (DSS) amid pandemonium.
“We will continue to press and the consequences of anything happening to Mr Sowore will be far beyond any harm, that comes to him,” said Menendez, who is a ranking member of U.S. Foreign Relations Committee. “There will be consequences in our relationship with Nigeria.”
"Yele" Sowore, the 48-year-old Nigerian-American publisher of the US-based Sahara Reporters newsite, is facing trial in his native land on chargers of treason, money laundering and stalking President Muhammadu Buhari, against whom he called for a nationwide demonstration earlier this year.
The intelligence agency originally seized him in his hotel room during a visit in August as Sowore -- who ran for president in February's general elections -- was organizing a peaceful pro-democracy protest in the West African country.
The DSS held onto him despite orders from judges that Sowore be released pending trial.
Since then, supporters in Haworth have been tying yellow ribbons to trees -- one for each day he's been held.
A federal court in Nigeria gave the DSS a 24-hour ultimatum to release Sowore pending his trial.
It did so, with bail requirements that, among other measures, barred Sowore from talking to the media or from being involved with a protest. No sooner had that decision been rendered than gun-wielding DSS officials stormed a federal court on Friday.
Judges and staff fled as Sowore’s lawyers and others tried to protect him from his captors.
His wife, Ope Sowore, said she was “truly shaken to my core” by what she witnessed.
“How do I tell my children who, after 125 days, have for the very first time spoken to their dad and seen his face that he is again in detention and that he may not be coming home for Christmas?” she asked reporters. “How do they understand this, and where do we go from here?”
Sowore and his wife have lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years. Their two children attend Haworth schools.
Sowore launched Sahara Reporters – referred to in some circles as “Africa’s WikiLeaks” -- from what was his Englewood home 13 years ago. It aims to uncover corruption and deceit within Nigeria’s government.
A country of more than 190 million people, Nigeria is ranked 120th of 180 globally -- and a 34th of 53 ranked African countries -- on the 2019 World Press Freedom Index.
Sowore recently moved his site's base of operations to Manhattan, from where reporters cover issues in 5,000 miles away without fear of reprisals or repression.
They have been particularly critical of Buhari, a former military head of state in the 1980s, reinvented himself as a “reformed democrat” during the 2015 presidential campaign.
Buhari’s administration and the ruling All Progressive Congress, which have control of Nigeria’s Senate, have cracked down on free speech.
One proposal calls for sentencing those convicted of criticizing the government to up to three years in prison – and those found guilty of “hate speech” to the death penalty.
Amnesty International declared Sowore a prisoner of conscience.
The non-profit Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights advocacy organization and others – such as Amal Clooney, co-president of the Clooney Foundation for Justice – have also condemned Sowore's arrest and continued detention.
Menendez, meanwhile, said Sowore’s only crime is “exercising his right to free expression” by speaking out against corruption and bad government in Nigeria.
The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) also implored President Trump to do something.
SERAP tweeted: “Dear @realDonaldTrump Omoyele Sowore who is the husband of a US citizen Mrs Opeyemi Sowore, was violently re-arrested yesterday inside the courtroom after the court has granted him bail. You’ve consistently committed to putting America first. That means speaking out for Sowore.”
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