Kanu, the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) group, appeared at the Federal High Court in the Nigerian capital Abuja on Monday. The British-Nigerian dual national is charged with six counts of treasonable felony—which carries a maximum life sentence in Nigeria—and his trial was due to start on Monday. The trial ended up being adjourned to Wednesday after a successful application by state prosecutor Mohammed Diri for a screen to be erected to protect the identities of witnesses.
Barrister Ifeanyi Ejiofor, a member of Kanu’s legal team, told Newsweek that his life had been threatened at the courthouse on Monday by a member of the State Security Service (DSS), Nigeria’s intelligence agency, which arrested Kanu in October 2015 . Ejiofor says he intervened when members of the DSS attempted to prevent Kanu’s family members from entering the courtroom. Ejiofor says that, during the confrontation, a member of the DSS threatened to kill him and that he had advised Kanu that his life was also at risk.
“I told him [Kanu] not to come to court, he won’t come to court tomorrow [Wednesday], because his life is being threatened [and] I don’t want anything to happen to him,” says Ejiofor. The lawyer also says that Kanu’s team will contest the ruling that the witnesses’ identities be protected by filing an appeal at the Court of Appeal and asked the judicial authorities to be vigilant. “They should be on the watch if anything happens to Kanu or me, because when I’m being threatened that means Kanu is also being threatened,” says Ejiofor. The DSS was not immediately available to comment on the accusations.
In his application, Diri claimed that the witnesses had been subject to threats from associates of Kanu. Judge John Tsoho ruled that witnesses could testify from behind screens—where they would only be visible to the judge, lawyers and three defendants, including Kanu—in order that the witnesses “not necessarily be exposed to avoidable risk,” according to AFP. The ruling came after an order by Tsoho on February 19 that witnesses not be allowed to wear masks while testifying and that the public should be allowed to attend the trial. Diri also read a note from the DSS at the hearing, which claimed that Kanu’s family was planning to seize him during the trial.
In a statement sent to Newsweek on Tuesday, IPOB called for Tsoho to stand down from the case. “How can we trust a judge that rules one way and changes his mind at the next sitting?” said the IPOB statement. “We have no trust in his continued participation in this matter and advise the Chief Judge of the Abuja High Court to replace him with immediate effect.” The group also poured scorn on the DSS’ claims that Kanu’s supporters would attempt to jailbreak him during the trial, saying it was “ridiculous” to suggest that unarmed members of Kanu’s family could spring him from an armed DSS guard.
The arrest of Kanu—who is also the director of underground station Radio Biafra—prompted waves of demonstrations among pro-Biafran protesters in Nigeria, calling for his release and for the independence of the region formerly known as the Republic of Biafra. The protests have led to numerous deaths and Amnesty International has told Newsweek it is looking into allegations of human rights abuses by security forces against protesters in at least four locations in Nigeria.
Nigerian military officer Odumegwu Ojukwu declared the independent Republic of Biafra in 1967, sparking a three-year civil war in which more than one million people died. President Muhammadu Buhari, who served as a Nigerian military officer during the civil war, has said recently that Nigeria “will not tolerate” agitation for the independence of Biafra.