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Call for release of labour activists

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - Lagos, January 17, 2012 - Nigerian authorities should immediately release labor union leader Osmond Ugwu and union member Raphael Elobuike, and drop all charges, given the glaring lack of evidence in the prosecution's case against them, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and 33 Nigerian civil society organizations said today in a joint statement. The authorities should investigate state involvement in breaking up a peaceful union meeting and arresting the union activists in violation of the right to freedom of association and assembly, the groups said.

"A review of the prosecution's evidence reveals an apparent bid by the police and prosecution to silence union activists," said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Rather than prosecuting Ugwu and Elobuike, the authorities should investigate who is responsible for targeting their meeting and having them beaten and arbitrarily detained."

The two men were arrested on October 24, 2011 after more than 20 police officers, soldiers, and men in plain clothes armed with guns broke up a union meeting in Enugu that multiple witnesses described as peaceful. The security agents stormed the meeting, at the state secretariat of the Nigerian Labour Congress, and attempted to arrest Ugwu, according to the witnesses. Ugwu, who is the chairman of the Enugu State Workers Forum, was leading state workers in a prayer meeting for a favorable outcome to the labor negotiations. The women attending the meeting surrounded him to prevent the arrest. The security agents fired into the air to disperse the women and beat those who refused to move with their guns, belts, and sticks, the witnesses said.

The security agents dragged Ugwu out of the compound and beat him. In the course of dragging him away from the union members they tore off all his clothes, except his underwear, the witnesses said. The security agents then dragged him by his legs down the road to one of the police vehicles. Ugwu was injured on his head and legs. Elobuike, a civil servant who had been at the meeting and tried to help him, was also arrested, witnesses said.

The police allege that the crowd threw "stones, bottles and other objects" at them. After the two men had been taken to the police vehicle, a police officer was hit in the head and injured by a stone thrown from the crowd, a police sergeant said. Witnesses say some of the women fought the police while trying to prevent Ugwu's arrest.

The two men were taken to the police headquarters in Enugu and on October 26 brought before the chief magistrate's court, where they were arraigned on assault and attempted murder charges. The chief magistrate lacked the jurisdiction to hear the case but remanded them to prison pending a decision by the state attorney general whether to file charges at the High Court, a practice known as a "holding charge."

On November 3 the men applied for bail at the state High Court. At the first bail hearing, held on November 18, the judge decided not to hear the case due to concern over a potential conflict of interest since his wife is a senior aid to the state governor. The second bail hearing, scheduled for December 9, was cancelled. At the third scheduled hearing on December 20 the attorney general appeared in person and opposed the bail application. The judge adjourned the case until January 26, 2012 to rule on the matter.

"These two men have been arbitrarily deprived of their liberty," said Olisa Agbakoba, former president of the Nigerian Bar Association. "The apparent complicity of the prosecution and the delays by the court have allowed the state to run roughshod over their fundamental rights."

The men were arrested during an ongoing labor dispute between civil servants and the Enugu State government over implementation of a new law increasing the minimum wage, which President Goodluck Jonathan signed into law in March 2011.

Nigeria is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the rights to a fair trial and to freedom of expression, association, and assembly, including trade union membership and activities. It is also a member of the International Labour Organization, whose fundamental principles, including the right to organize, are binding on all members.

Neither the police nor the state prosecutors have presented any evidence against the two on the attempted murder charge, and the only evidence of assault alleges that Ugwu held on to a police officer's uniform and tore it while he was being dragged away.

"The reprehensible actions of the state are a gross violation of the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly," said Erwin van der Borght, director of the Africa program at Amnesty International. "These two men are prisoners of conscience who are being held on trumped-up charges. They must be immediately released and these spurious charges dropped."

The following organizations have endorsed this press release:

Access to Justice (AJ)
Amnesty International
Bauchi Human Rights Network
Centre for the Advocacy of Justice and Rights
Centre for Democracy & Development (CDD)
Centre for Environment Human Rights and Development (CEHRD)
Centre for Peace Across Borders (CePAB)
Centre for Public Interest Law (CePIL)
Centre for the Rule of Law (CENTROLAW)
Civil Liberties Organisation (Bayelsa, Enugu)
Civil Rights Congress
Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC)
CLEEN Foundation
Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR)
Democratic Action Group
Global Rights Development International (GDRI)
Human Rights Law Service (HURILAWS)
Human Rights Monitor (HRM)
Human Rights Research and Advocacy Centre
Human Rights Social Development Environmental Foundation (HURSDEF)
Human Rights Watch
Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law (IHRHL)
International Centre for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights (INCRESE)
International Society for Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law (Intersociety)
Lawyers of Conscience
Legal Defence and Assistance Programme (LEDAP)
Network on Police Reform in Nigeria (NOPRIN)
Nigerian Humanist Movement
Ogoni Solidarity Forum
Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre (PLAC)
Prisoners Rehabilitation and Welfare Action (PRAWA)
Social Development Integrated Centre (Social Action)
Social Justice Advocacy Initiative (SJAI)
Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP)
Women Advocates Research and Documentation Center (WARDC)
For more on the prosecution's evidence against Ugwu and Elobuike, please click here

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