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Nigeria Holds American Woman Without Bail

Policemen watch a bonfire set up by striking workers in Abuja, Nigeria on June, 20, 2007. Nigerian unions launched a potentially crippling general strike over a steep hike in petroleum prices in one of the world's foremost oil exporters.
PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images
Authorities are holding a longtime American resident in Nigeria without bail on alleged violations of state security laws, with prosecutors saying the woman helped filmmakers take images of petroleum installations.

Judith Asuni, an American charity worker who has lived in Nigeria for more than three decades, was arrested Sept. 26 with two German filmmakers and one Nigerian man after the Germans filmed oil installations in the lawless Niger Delta, court papers showed.

The two Germans, Alexander Orpitz and Andy Lehman, were granted bail on Friday. But Asuni, believed to be in her 60s, and the Nigerian man, Danjuma Saidu, have been kept in detention and were denied bail again Monday by a judge in the capital, Abuja. The defendants, who have pleaded innocent to the charges, face at least seven years in prison if convicted.

Prosecutor Saliu Aliu said in court Monday that he had documents showing Asuni, who is married to a Nigerian, was a security risk, but the contents weren't released. Reached by telephone Tuesday, Aliu refused comment on the documents, citing security regulations, and said it was the court's decision to grant only the Germans bail. The U.S. Embassy is expressing concern at the detention of Asuni, who runs a non-governmental organization that seeks to promote peace in the Niger Delta, where competition for oil riches has sparked violence.

"Dr. Asuni is an aid worker and longtime resident of Nigeria who is recognized for her efforts to promote understanding, conflict management, transparency, and sustainable development in the Niger Delta," the embassy said in a recent statement.

Asuni is being kept at an Abuja guest house run by Nigeria's secret police. Her lawyers weren't reachable for comment on Tuesday. The next court appointment is set for Oct. 16.

Nigeria's southern Niger Delta region has suffered serious security problems as militants stepped up activities in recent years, sparking a wave of hostage takings and battles between gunmen and security forces.

The new government of President Umaru Yar'Adua has stepped up efforts to calm the region, as violence has waned since he took power May 29, but Nigeria has long been sensitive to the portrayal of the region by international media.

Aid workers living in the region often help visiting journalists and documentarians to do their work, on the theory that Nigeria's return to civilian rule in 1999 means press should be allowed to travel where they like. Charity organizations like Asuni's often have contact with individuals, like the militants they mean to rehabilitate, that the government consider criminal.

While reporting in the Niger Delta region isn't expressly illegal, journalists are officially prohibited from filming in military or other prohibited areas.

Since the military joined civilian security forces in policing the vast wetlands region in recent years, local officials routinely try and impede reporters' movements in the area, particularly if they seek to meet militant fighters.

Nigeria otherwise has a relatively free press, with more than a dozen mass dailies and several private television and radio stations routinely unearthing official corruption and human rights abuses by security forces.