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Thursday, July 16, 1998 Published at 12:50 GMT 13:50 UK

World: Africa

Nigeria to release prisoners

General Abubakar: Release is to defend freedom and basic rights

The Nigerian military authorities have ordered the immediate release of hundreds of prisoners, who had been held without trial, or were still in jail after completing their sentences.

A government statement said among them were 362 people convicted of financial crimes by special military tribunals set up by the former Nigerian ruler, General Sani Abacha, who died last month.

The statement said they were being released to defend the freedom and basic rights of individuals - and to decongest Nigeria's prisons.

[ image: Former Nigerian head of state, General Olusegun Obasanjo, released last month]
Former Nigerian head of state, General Olusegun Obasanjo, released last month
Many of the prisoners had earlier appealed to the country's new military leader, General Abdulsalam Abubakar, to review detentions handed down by Abacha.

Abubakar has already freed several dozen political prisoners, including leading activists and opposition politicians.

But the country's most prominent detainee, Moshood Abiola, presumed winner of the 1993 elections died in detention shortly before his anticipated release.

[ image: Moshood Abiola - died before anticipated release]
Moshood Abiola - died before anticipated release
An international team of doctors have found that Abiola died of natural causes, most probably heart failure, but further tests are still to be carried out.

Since taking over, Abubakar has vowed to continue with his predecessor's widely-criticized political transition plan, but has also vowed to bring true civilian rule to Nigeria.

Abacha ruled Nigeria with an iron fist after taking power following a bloodless 1993 coup.

Nigeria has been under military governments for all but 10 of 38 years since independence from former colonial power, Great Britain.

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