New York, September 5, 2008—Nigerian authorities temporarily released today American filmmaker Andrew Berends into the custody of the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, according to his colleagues, who have been in contact with the U.S. State Department.
Authorities in Port Harcourt also released Berends’ Nigerian translator, Samuel George, for the weekend, a friend of his in the city told CPJ. Berends and George are expected to report to the authorities on Monday, the State Department said.
Military personnel arrested Berends and George and then handed them over to Nigeria’s state security services on Sunday in Port Harcourt, local journalists told CPJ. The authorities accused Berends of espionage and detained him for 36 hours after his arrest, then ordered him to report for day-long interrogations every day since, according to e-mails Berends sent to colleagues. George remained in custody throughout the week.
“Nigeria’s democratic government has made enormous strides since the days of dictator Sani Abacha, when dozens of Nigerian journalists were arrested and held under terrible conditions,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “Detaining journalists for doing their job is unbefitting of the country’s new leaders. We hope that the ordeal of Andrew Berends and Samuel George will soon be over.”
U.S. senators Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Charles Schumer (D-NY) sent letters to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice today and yesterday. Christiane Amanpour, a CPJ board member and CNN’s chief international correspondent, also called for the journalist’s and translator’s release.
Berends, an award-winning filmmaker, legally entered Nigeria in April to complete a documentary called “Delta Boys,” sponsored by the New York-based Tribeca Film Institute, about the Niger Delta region’s oil conflict. Berends previously directed a film on Iraq called “Blood of My Brother,” which was screened widely on the international festival circuit and earned a 2006 International Documentary Award.
George is a graduate of Port Harcourt University of Science and Technology and was working with Berends as a translator.
Another documentary film crew was detained this year by the Nigerian military in the Niger Delta region. The military arrested the film crew of “Sweet Crude” on April 12 and held them for a week on charges that were never substantiated. According to CPJ research, this is the fourth time journalists and media workers have been arrested in the Niger Delta on unsubstantiated charges since 2005.