Free Andrew Berends – Arrested in Nigeria

My good friend’s colleague and fellow filmmaker Andrew Berends was arrested in Nigeria. Please help spread the word as international pressure will help speed up his release. For more information, see this article in the New York Times (full text below).

Let this also be a sober reminder of why it’s so important to fight for our civil liberties here at home. It’s NOT OK for people to be picked up by the polic without probable cause and interrogated without representation or without being formally charged. It’s not just in Nigeria; it happens here in the U.S. of A. too, and it’s just as wrong when the US government or XYZ County Police do it as when the Nigerian State Security Service does it.

Please keep Andrew and his family in your prayers.

LAGOS, Nigeria — An American documentary filmmaker and his interpreter working in the volatile Delta region of Nigeria have been arrested and accused of spying, according to Nigerian government officials and media watchdog groups.

Andrew Berends, a New York-based freelance filmmaker and journalist who was working on a film about the oil-producing Delta region, was arrested on Sunday and held overnight. “They didn’t let me sleep or eat or drink water for the first 36 hours,” he said Tuesday night.

Mr. Berends’s passport and equipment were confiscated. On Monday he was released but ordered to report back to the State Security Service the next morning. On Tuesday he was again taken into custody, released and told to return the next morning. His interpreter, Samuel George, remained in custody.

A military spokesman, Lt. Col. Sagir Musa, confirmed that Mr. Berends had been arrested and handed over to the security service.

“He had no security clearance,” Colonel Musa said. “It is for his own safety. If something happens to him, it’s an embarrassment to the security agencies. It’s not normal times in the area right now. The S.S.S. will investigate him, and once they are satisfied they will release him, God willing.”

Mr. Berends contacted two advocacy groups, Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists, and both groups condemned his detention.

Reporters Without Borders issued a statement that said: “Berends was arrested just for doing his job and no other reason. It is absurd for the authorities to think that by arresting him and his interpreter, they can conceal the economic and ecological disaster unfolding in the Niger Delta.”

Despite its oil riches, the Niger Delta is a desperately poor and increasingly lawless part of the country, where wealth is siphoned away by corrupt officials. Militants demand a greater share of the area’s oil resources and claim to be fighting on behalf of the impoverished residents, but also appear to be engaging in many criminal and opportunistic acts of violence. Hundreds of foreign workers and wealthy Nigerians have been kidnapped for ransom, and oil theft is rampant.

Several other foreign journalists and filmmakers have been detained while working in the region in recent years. In April, four members of a Seattle-based film crew were arrested in the Delta and held for six days on spying charges.

Commenting on the arrest of Mr. Berends, Chris Alagoa of the Niger Delta Peace and Security Secretariat, a community organization, said: “The government probably knows the fellow’s real mission and that it has nothing to do with espionage, but they want to do it to discourage others from coming to report on the situation on the ground. Hounding journalists and filmmakers who want to inform the public is in bad taste.”

While Nigeria has a significantly freer press than most African nations, gathering information in the Niger Delta is particularly difficult.

“We have one of the freest presses in Africa, but there are rules,” said Nwuke Ogbonna, information commissioner for Rivers State, which includes part of the Delta. As for Mr. Berends, he said: “He may have engaged in actions that are not in the national interests of this country. Whether that means spying or entering off-limits areas, I can’t say. It’s for the security agents to determine whether this means he was spying.”

Mr. Berends had visited Nigeria on several occasions and had been in the country since April on this trip. He often ventured into the creeks of the Delta to film in villages affected by oil drilling. Two weeks ago, Mr. Berends said he had nearly finished his work and was planning to return to New York this month. Mr. Berends directed the 2006 documentary “The Blood of My Brother,” about Iraq.