Nigerian leader defies pleas for reforms General says military to rule 3 more years; foes still imprisoned


LAGOS, Nigeria -- Defying international pressure for immediate democratic reforms and an end to human rights abuses, Nigerian leader Gen. Sani Abacha announced yesterday that his military regime will stay in power for three more years before allowing civilian rule.

The hard-line stance is expected to further entrench oppressive military rule in this sub-Sahara African nation crippled by grave political and economic crises.

In a long-awaited speech that was peppered with criticism of his foes here and abroad, General Abacha refused to release scores of political prisoners -- specifically Moshood K. O. Abiola, the prominent pro-democracy leader who was imprisoned 15 months ago.

Mr. Abiola was charged with treason and placed in solitary confinement after claiming victory in a 1993 presidential election that was annulled despite reports by international observers that the vote was the most free and fair in Nigeria's troubled history. President Clinton and other world leaders have appealed for clemency.

"Those who describe Chief Abiola as a political prisoner seek to trivialize the grave offense for which he is charged," General Abacha said. Nigeria's courts ultimately must determine if Mr. Abiola should be freed, he said, adding that the case had been "distorted in an orchestrated attempt to mislead the world."

But citing what he called the "earnest pleas of our friends," General Abacha said he will commute the sentences of about 40 politicians and members of the military who were tried and convicted in secret trials in June for allegedly plotting to overthrow the regime.

General Abacha, however, did not say if they will be given lesser sentences or otherwise detail their fates. At least 14 members of the group were reportedly sentenced to death by the military tribunal, with others given life sentences or lengthy prison terms.

"This situation will be reviewed at the appropriate time," General Abacha said.

Hundreds of people have been jailed or detained without charges in the last two years. In addition, human rights groups say that at least 300 Nigerians have been shot to death in political protests since 1993.

General Abacha's only other apparent concession yesterday was to lift a ban on two major newspaper groups, which together publish about 15 titles. The papers were closed more than a year ago after criticizing the regime. Many journalists remain in prison, are hiding from police or have fled into exile.

Squads of riot police in armored vehicles patrolled the trash-strewn streets of this impoverished city yesterday after the nationally televised speech, which marked the 35th anniversary of independence from Britain. No protests were reported from a population that has endured rule by military fiat for 25 of those 35 years.

But the Abacha regime's refusal to step down quickly or free political prisoners was immediately criticized by Western diplomats, human rights groups and political opponents.

"They think this is a bold move. But we do not," a senior Western diplomat said. "It may push back the imposition of new sanctions, but not necessarily for very long."

The Clinton administration has already imposed a series of sanctions against the Abacha regime. It has cut all but humanitarian aid, refuses to issue visas to government officials and military officers, has vetoed assistance from international financing institutions and has repeatedly cited the regime for trafficking heroin and other drugs to the United States and Europe.

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