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A Nigerian woman reviewed a tomato puree online. Now she is facing prison

A Nigerian woman who wrote an online review of a can of tomato puree is facing jail time after the manufacturer accused her of making a can of tomato puree “malicious claim” That hurt his business.

Chioma Okoli, a 39-year-old entrepreneur from Lagos, is being prosecuted and sued in a civil court for allegedly violating the country’s cybercrime laws. The case has gripped the West African country and sparked protests among locals who believe she is being persecuted for exercising her right to freedom of expression.

What did she say?

Okoli, a small importer of children’s clothing, told CNN that on September 17 she asked her 18,000 followers on Facebook to share their opinion on a tomato puree she bought instead of her usual brands, saying she found it too sweet.

Your contribution, accompanied by a Photo of an opened can of Nagiko Tomato Mixmade by local company Erisco Foods Limited, sparked mixed reactions from commenters, with one replying: “Stop spoiling my brother’s product.” If you don’t like it, use another one instead of posting it on social publish media or call customer service.”

Okoli replied: “Help me advise your brother to stop killing people with his product. Yesterday I used it for the first time and it’s pure sugar.”

She was arrested a week later, on September 24th.

In court documents seen by CNN, Nigerian police alleged that Okoli used her Facebook account “with the intention of inciting people against Erisco Foods,” adding: opinion On March 7, the court said it had found “compelling evidence” against her in its preliminary investigation.

According to the police, Okoli was accused of “inciting Erisco Foods Limited knowing that the said information was false under Section 24 (1) (B) of the Nigerian Cyber ​​Crime Prohibition Act.”

If found guilty, she could face up to three years in prison or a fine of 7 million naira (about $5,000), or both.

Okoli was separately charged with conspiring with two other persons “with intent to incite people against Erisco Foods Limited,” which was punishable under Section 27(1)(B) of the same law, according to the charge sheet. If convicted of this charge, she could face seven years in prison.

CNN has reached out to Facebook for comment.

Okoli is also being sued in a separate civil case by Erisco, which said in a Jan. 19 statement that it was defending its reputation following her comments “has led to several suppliers deciding to distance themselves from us.”

The Lagos-based food company said it also “suffered the loss of several credit lines” and has therefore filed a civil suit against Okoli seeking 5 billion naira (more than $3 million) in damages. That case is scheduled to be heard on May 20, her lawyer Inibehe Effiong told CNN.

A spokesman for Erisco Foods, Nnamdi Nwokolo, told CNN the company would not comment further on the case “as it is pending before a court of competent jurisdiction.”

Public apology required

Okoli, Currently pregnant with her fourth child, she told CNN she was arrested by plainclothes police while she was at church in Lagos and held in a leaky police cell.

“I was put in the cell around 6pm (on September 24). There were no seats so I stood there until the next day. My legs were in water (coming in from the leaky roof). Sometimes I squatted to relieve the pressure on my legs. I thought about my children who were at home. I talked to myself. I would think, I would pray, I would be confused,” she said.

The next day, Okoli was flown there Nigerians She said she was arrested in the capital Abuja and held at a police station pending her release on bail a day later.

Agreeing to publicly apologize to Erisco was a condition of her release on bail, she said, but her lawyer Effiong told CNN she agreed to it under duress and therefore did not apologize after her release.

The police filed their case against Okoli in an Abuja court on October 5.

The first court hearing took place on December 7th. She was represented by her lawyer but did not appear in person.

Okoli told CNN that a month later, on January 9, police entered her home in Lagos and attempted to arrest her, despite a court issuing an injunction on November 8 prohibiting her arrest without a court order. CNN has seen a copy of the injunction.

“They stayed in my building from 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. My children couldn’t go to school that day and we couldn’t go out to get food because the cooking gas was exhausted,” she said. Eventually, she said, the police left.

National police spokesman Olumuyiwa Adejobi told CNN he could not comment on the case as the matter was before the courts.

“We will comment on the case when the court decides,” Adejobi said.

Countersuit against police and food companies

Effiong told CNN that Okoli’s legal team is now preparing for the two legal cases, which he described as a battle between David and Goliath.

“In this case, we believe David is right and Goliath is wrong,” Effiong said.

In October, he filed a 500 million naira ($361,171) countersuit against Erisco and the police in a Lagos court on behalf of Okoli, demanding her arrest and detention, which he said violated her constitutional rights to personal liberty and freedom of movement violated.

In court filings related to the countersuit, Effiong argued that his client’s arrest also violated her constitutional right to free speech. He said he would also ask the Abuja court where she is being tried for cybercrime offenses to transfer the case to Lagos, where she lives, at the next hearing scheduled for April 18.

Hard to prove

Nigerian legal and public affairs analyst Kelechukwu Uzoka told CNN that there are limits to defending freedom of expression.

“No law guarantees absolute freedom,” he said. “Although we have our freedom of expression, there are restrictions. You can’t defame or slander anyone.”

However, he added that “cybercrime is difficult to prove in court.” You have to prove that actual harm was caused at the time of publication. Erisco must demonstrate that the Facebook post (by Okoli) had an impact on its business at the time it was made.” He noted that in Okoli’s post she used a word with three asterisks, which could be open to interpretation.

“The harassment and intimidation of Chioma Okoli must now end,” said Amnesty International Nigeria said Earlier this month, Nigerians began crowdfunding online to fund their legal fees.

Okoli’s case has caused a stir protests at Erisco’s facility in Lagos as many called for it on social media boycott of its products. However, the company’s founder, Eric Umeofia, refused to back down. he said in a recent documentary on local Arise television Channel that he will not drop the lawsuit against Okoli and that he would “rather die than allow anyone to tarnish my image. I worked for 40 years to grow.”

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