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Beninese Police Detain Nigerian Journalist, ‘Threaten Jail Time Unless Bribed’

Damilola Ayeni, who is the editor of the Foundation for Investigative Journalism, had travelled to the Benin Republic for an environment-related story. But the police say he is being held under terrorism suspicions.

Damilola Ayeni, a Nigerian journalist, is currently detained at the Parakou Police Station in neighbouring Benin Republic and the police authorities are demanding money for his release, according to the Foundation for Investigative Journalism (FIJ), where he is the editor.

Ayeni was arrested briefly on Thursday, Aug. 31, under the pretext of security concerns, after which he became unreachable. FIJ reported that he had gone “for the second leg of a Nigeria-Benin environmental journalism report” when the arrest took place.

Five days later, on Tuesday, an officer who introduced himself as the Commissioner of the Central Police Station of Parakou in Benin contacted FIJ and explained that Ayeni was arrested at the Pendjari National Park in the northern region of the country.

“He would be presented to the prosecutor and sent to prison. He risks 10 to 20 years in prison,” he wrote.

Later, the officer would label Ayeni a suspected “jihadist” and demand a bribe.

“Jihadist case in Benin is complicated … I ask you to send a lawyer for his defence, I will ask the OPJ [Criminal Investigation Officer] to listen to him again before presenting him to the CRIET Prosecutor in Porto-Novo.”

CRIET refers to the Court for the Repression of Economic Offenses and Terrorism [Cour de Repression des Infractions Economiques et du Terrorisme]. When the allegation of terrorism was challenged, the officer, identified by the instant messaging app as Agnisso Lounko, said the FIJ should “reconsider [its] reaction”.

“We are all human beings, and I also have relatives in Nigeria. Send 800,000 CFA [$1,300] to my number allowing me to see my colleagues again and the released … We are in the fight against the jihadists.”

FIJ Founder Fisayo Soyombo has called for Ayeni’s release, wondering how he could be tagged a violent extremist, though no weapon was found on him.

“He is a journalist — not a jihadist,” Soyombo tweeted on Tuesday.

Terrorists attacked the Pendjari Park in May 2019, abducting two French tourists and killing their local guide. The country has suffered more terror attacks since then, one of them leading to eight deaths in 2022, also taking place at a park in the northern region.

The authorities may be exploiting these events to abuse the human rights of people found close to forest areas, using the guise of counterterrorism efforts.

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'Kunle Adebajo

Head of Investigations at HumAngle. ‘Kunle covers conflict alongside its many intricacies and fallouts. He also writes about disinformation, the environment, and human rights. He's won a couple of journalism awards, including the 2021 Wole Soyinka Award for Investigative Journalism, the 2022 African Fact-checking Award, and the 2023 Michael Elliott Award for Excellence in African Storytelling.

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