South Africa jails Nigerian militant for 24 years

JOHANNESBURG Tue Mar 26, 2013 1:35pm EDT

Nigerian militant leader Henry Okah (L) gestures as he is escorted by police after his sentencing was postponed at a Johannesburg court February 28, 2013. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Nigerian militant leader Henry Okah (L) gestures as he is escorted by police after his sentencing was postponed at a Johannesburg court February 28, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

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JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A South African court sentenced suspected former Niger Delta rebel leader Henry Okah to 24 years in jail on Tuesday for masterminding two deadly car bombings in the Nigerian capital in 2010, officials said.

The bombs killed at least 10 people during Independence Day celebrations in Abuja. Okah was convicted in January on 13 counts, including conspiracy to commit terrorism and detonating explosives.

Okah, who denies any leadership role in the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), moved to South Africa after Nigeria issued an amnesty for members of the guerrilla group in 2009, lifting charges of gun-running and treason against him.

The South African court tried Okah under counter-terrorism laws that cover crimes committed outside the country.

"As far as this trial is concerned, it is more as if I faced a lynch mob," he told Reuters a few weeks before being sentenced. "I don't have control of anybody. I can't speak for whoever is going around the media making threats."

MEND's attacks on oilfields and pipelines across the swampy region that is home to Africa's biggest oil and gas industry cost Nigeria $1 billion a month in lost revenues at its peak, according to the central bank.

An amnesty in 2009 with Niger Delta militants persuaded them to formally end their uprising, although attacks on pipelines to steal oil in so-called "bunkering" operations have continued.

In an emailed statement signed Jomo Gbomo, a pseudonym the militant group normally uses, MEND condemned what it called "a South African kangaroo court."

"This planned sentencing of Henry Okah will not ... change our struggle ... we will remain dedicated to our cause until we achieve full justice and emancipation for the Niger Delta."

It was not clear if Okah's sentence would spur any violence from former delta militants, although many of them are on lucrative amnesty packages they may not wish to risk losing.

In his home Niger Delta region, many said they suspected Okah's arrest and trial were not fair.

"The sentence is politically driven ... The sentence is not because of any crime but an arrangement between South Africa and Nigeria," said Celestine Akpobiri, a local activist.

Others said Okah had got what he deserved.

"This should serve as deterrent to others. Crime is crime anywhere, and if you are found guilty you should be punished," said Ese George, 34, a student in the delta city of Yenagoa.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Johannesburg; Additional reporting by Tim Cocks and Lagos and Tife Owolabi in Yenagoa; Editing by Michael Roddy)

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