Nigerian militant case in S.Africa shows challenges faced by haven for continent’s dissidents

By Donna Bryson, AP
Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Some who flee to S.Africa are diplomatic challenge

JOHANNESBURG — A Nigerian charged with carbombings that killed at least a dozen people in his homeland last week. A former Rwandan general who survived an assassination attempt in Johannesburg and whose extradition is sought for genocide.

Both men sought refuge in South Africa — and both brought their own nations’ troubles spilling across its borders.

South Africa has been a haven for Africans since apartheid ended in 1994, with some coming to escape injustice — or justice — in their own countries.

But as the two ongoing cases illustrate, South Africa is starting to suffer a haven headache, affecting diplomatic relations with other countries and requiring a tightrope act to balance a commitment to human rights with security concerns of other countries — even those with poor human rights records.

“South Africa cannot allow itself to be bullied by countries. It needs to stand up for the law,” said Sipho Mthathi, South Africa director of Human Rights Watch. “But navigating these diplomatic relations can be difficult.”

The Nigerian, Henry Okah, appeared in a downtown Johannesburg court Tuesday on terrorism charges related to twin carbombings in Nigeria’s capital on Friday. A militant group that Okah used to head claimed credit for the attack.

The last time Okah appeared in a Nigerian courtroom, he faced the death penalty in a trial for treason and terrorism that was closed to the public and to the press. The charges were later dropped and Okah was granted amnesty and freed in July 2009 in Nigeria’s bid to quell unrest in an oil-rich state where Okah’s group operated. Okah then settled in South Africa.

In the downtown Johannesburg courtroom this week, Okah’s lawyers and prosecutors politely argued points of constitutional law. The hearings were open to the press and the public.

Nigerian authorities believe Okah is still active in his old group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, though his lawyer denied it and insisted he is innocent of Friday’s bombings. A South African prosecutor said he is working with Nigerian authorities in the case.

In another case with international repercussions, a former Rwandan general who has been granted asylum in South Africa is being sought by Spain on genocide charges. Rwanda also wants to put Gen. Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa on trial, accusing him of trying to destabilize the government of his erstwhile ally, Rwandan President Paul .

Nyamwasa’s wife says Kagame was behind an attack in Johannesburg in June that left her husband with a gunshot wound. Rwanda’s government has denied the allegation. South Africa recalled its ambassador to Rwanda in August and the envoy has yet to return, though foreign affairs officials say diplomatic ties remain intact.

South Africa’s Constitutional Court has stood up even for those in the country illegally.

In 1999, a Tanzanian named Khalfan Khamis Mohamed was arrested in Cape Town and deported to the United States for trial in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. In the U.S., Mohamed faced the death penalty, which does not exist in South Africa.

The Constitutional Court said that even though Mohamed was not a citizen and had entered South Africa under a false name and on a fake passport, he had a constitutional right “to life, to dignity and not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment.”

South Africa’s concerns about the death penalty were sent to the New York court where Mohamed was being tried. He was convicted and jailed for life, and was not sentenced to death.

Sylvester Bongani Maphosa, a researcher at the Africa Institute of South Africa think tank, said South Africa must continue to work with other countries in a world where terrorism knows no borders but acknowledged it’s a tricky situation in Africa, where some governments are quick to label their political enemies as terrorists.

For her part, Mthathi said South Africa needs to improve screening to keep undesirable people out, but added that she wants the country to remain a haven for those in legitimate need while pushing other countries to improve conditions at home so dissidents need not flee.

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