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Ofehe terrorism trial lost in translation

Published on : 20 June 2012 – 2:03pm | By Hélène Michaud

Was it “sabotage” or “inventorise”? The possible mistranslation of a single word may have led to accusations of terrorism against Sunny Ofehe, a Nigerian activist living in the Netherlands.

In early 2011, Ofehe was charged in the Netherlands with planning to blow up oil pipelines and thus of conspiring to commit terrorist acts in Nigeria’s oil-producing region, the Niger Delta.

Now Ofehe has pressed charges against the Dutch Public Prosecutor for falsifying evidence against him. He alleges that an inaccurate summary of a tapped telephone call in Pidgin English led to wrongful accusations of terrorism against him.

Letter to the prosecutor
In a letter to the Dutch chief public prosecutor, Ofehe and his lawyers, Ed Manders and Michiel Pennings, say the tapped telephone call with a contact in Nigeria was made to prepare for a trip by a Dutch journalist. They say the journalist, Mark Schenkel, wanted Ofehe to arrange a visit to the Niger Delta in order to witness acts of oil theft.

Schenkel has since been asked to testify before an investigative judge. Asked whether he intended to document acts of terrorism, he told RNW: “No, no I never asked for that. The trip never materialised. It was to get behind the whole illegal oil bunkering story,  to witness them in the act of steeling oil.”

The journalist says he intended to write an article and perhaps take photos for his employer at the time, NRC Handelsblad, a Dutch quality newspaper.

The translations

The incriminating part of the summary by the public prosecutor that may have led to the terrorism accusation reads as follows:

“NN will commission his boys to prepare for the sabotage of oil pipelines near Ekpoma….Ofehe will make recordings of the whole operation.”

When Ofehe was charged with terrorism, his lawyers requested and obtained access to the wiretaps. After listening to the recordings in which they say there was no mention of sabotage, they requested a new translation from the prosecutor’s office.

It reads as follows:

“We will go there to inventorise [the place]….You understand. You will inventorise. You will take all your pictures. … I will mobilise my boys.”

“We are finally allowed to listen to the recordings, and the evidence is simply not in there,” Manders told RNW. “What first read as a commission to prepare acts of sabotage of oil pipelines near Ekpoma, now reads as they would go to ‘inventorise those places,’” he added.

The term ‘sabotage’ is used consistently in reports on oil theft by Royal Dutch Shell, the main oil operator in Nigeria, when presumed oil thieves are, for example, suspected of drilling holes or inflicting hacksaw cuts in its pipelines to siphon oil.

New insights
This new phase in a trial that now seems lost in translation may offer long awaited insights into why Ofehe, founder of the Hope for the Niger Delta Campaign, was charged with plotting to commit terrorist acts. He is the first person to face such accusations since a new anti terrorism law was passed in the Netherlands.

Meanwhile, Ofehe and his lawyers have laid charges of falsification of evidence against three people: the prosecutor, the police officer who made a report of the offence and the translator of the tapped phone calls in Pidgin English.

The prosecutor’s office has confirmed receipt of Ofehe’s letter and will now investigate whether punishable offences were committed. Responding to a question about the competence of their translators and interpreters, a prosecution spokesman told RNW that “we use sworn translators; we do not question their competence.”

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