LAGOS, Nigeria — A federal judge in Nigeria on Monday sentenced to death the feared right-hand man to Nigeria's former military dictator over the 1996 killing of an opposition candidate's wife.
Maj. Hamza Al-Mustapha sat without expression, slowly shaking his head "no," as the high court judge ordered him to be hanged over the killing of Kudirat Abiola. His coconspirator Lateef Shofolahan received the same sentence after the two men were found guilty of murder and conspiracy charges. Shofolahan was described by the court as a trusted employee of the Abiola family who ultimately betrayed them for money and power.
Al-Mustapha was found guilty of ordering a security agent to kill the wife of Moshood Abiola, a businessman widely believed to be the winner of an annulled 1993 presidential poll in Nigeria. Al-Mustapha denied taking part in the 1996 machine-gun killing in Lagos, saying he was tortured into a false confession.
Al-Mustapha served as the chief security officer to Gen. Sani Abacha, a paranoid military ruler who stole billions from the oil-rich nation while brutally suppressing dissent.
Abiola was imprisoned by the dictator at the time of his wife's death, and died in prison a month after Gen. Abacha's own death as the nation struggled toward democracy.
Judge Mojisola Dada, though speaking in a hushed tone over the several hours it took to read her judgment Monday in the stifling hot courtroom, barely controlled her rage over the killings. Dada described Al-Mustapha as a "venomous beast" and Shofolahan as a Judas who "sold his master for 30 pieces of silver."
"I think it is amazing that those who are most willing to shed the blood of others are the ones always scared of death," Dada said when handing down the sentence.
Lead defense lawyer Olalekan Ojo said both men would appeal their sentences and file for stays of execution. He also suggested the judge showed bias by ignoring the contradictions in the prosecution's case.
The daughter of the two slain democratic activists, Hafsat Abiola, said the verdict came as a surprise after previous trials ended without convictions. Nigerian authorities still view Al-Mustapha as a security threat, holding him in Lagos' maximum-security Kirikiri prison. In 2004, officials claimed he planned to have someone shoot down a helicopter carrying then-President Olusegun Obasanjo with a Stinger missile. He's also escaped convictions in other trials.
"I feel very relieved that over 15 years after my mother was assassinated that the people who killed her have been sentenced to death," Hafsat Abiola told The Associated Press. "It is not so much you want people to believe in the death penalty, but in a country with so much abuse of power and state impunity, we need to make sure people who commit crimes have to pay for it."
Al-Mustapha, a Hausa from the country's north, still receives support from the Muslim populace there, highlighting Nigeria's religious divisions. His recent claims in court also have been driving a further wedge, as he has offered a government memorandum that says hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on visitors to Abacha's palace.
Al-Mustapha and his family claim the government and powerful politicians want him dead. But they also highlight the long unease between Nigeria's north and south, where divisions largely fall along religious lines. Tens of thousands have died in religious and ethnic rioting since the nation embraced democracy in 1999.
As Al-Mustapha left the court Monday afternoon, some supporters in the crowd cheered for him and shouted "God is great" as he stood at the top of a courthouse staircase. He smiled and waved to those below, looking like a politician, not a man sentenced minutes earlier to death.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.