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Night in Nigeria

NIGERIA'S military rulers took another step into darkness last week with death sentences for writer and activist Ken Waro-Wiwa and a number of his colleagues from the country's Ogoniland region.

Mr. Waro-Wiwa, who has written eloquently about the environmental damage wrought by oil drilling in Nigeria, was seized by the government in May of 1994. His detention since is reported to have included torture and deprivation.

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The government claims he rallied young followers to murder four Ogoni chiefs thought to be collaborating with authorities.

In Nigeria's military-controlled judicial system, the merits of those charges were beside the point. The point was to silence Waro-Wiwa and crush his Movement for the Survival of Ogoni Peoples.

The international outcry since the sentence was announced could nudge Gen. Sani Abacha, Nigeria's dictator, to reverse the court's ruling, as he did recently for a number of other condemned prisoners. Impassioned objections have come from South Africa, Britain, and other quarters.

But what's called for is more than the commuting of an obviously unjust sentence by a tyrant who may think this is all part of some elaborate game. Waro-Wiwa and Nigeria's other prisoners of conscience should immediately be freed, and General Abacha should greatly shorten his proposed (and highly suspect) six-month transition to popular government.

Western, Commonwealth, and other African nations should demand quick evidence of the general's good faith. In the absence of that, bring on the sanctions package, including an embargo on Nigerian oil. Abacha can't be allowed to fill his pockets with oil dollars as he stamps out every flicker of hope and justice.

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