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BJP MLA’s False Promises get Nigerian Footballer Imprisoned

BJP MLA Mrinal Saikia promised to get Henry’s visa extended for coaching players of the MLA's football club. When Saikia failed to get the extension, Henry got thrown in jail, with no mention of the MLA’s involvement in the case.
Henry Oja Kheleche

Henry Oja Kheleche, a Nigerian footballer, came to the Indian state of Assam intending to coach youngsters and create a stimulating football environment in Assam. But the Indian criminal-justice failed him by punishing him twice for the same crime. Henry served two prison terms with a duration totalling to almost two years for an expired visa. The second jail sentence should never have been pronounced if the involvement of local BJP politicians had been carefully scrutinised by the courts. This sort of punishment makes one wonder if Henry’s country of origin, and his colour of skin, impacted the severity of the ordeal he suffered through.

The evidence presented in the court that got Henry his second punishment differs vastly from what the footballer told Newsclick. Henry states in his testimony, recorded on video, that Assam BJP MLA Mrinal Saikia promised him a visa extension in exchange for coaching Saikia’s football club. The magistrate had ordered for Henry to be deported after first being jailed for overstaying his visa, but on repeated assurances by Saikia, Henry returned to Assam accompanied by the state’s police.

Henry first arrived in India in 2011, landing in New Delhi. After a couple of days, he flew to Guwahati. Prior to his India trip, Henry had travelled to different countries to play football. In Assam, his intention was never to play, but to teach the sport. After regular interaction with the locals, he started teaching football, organising competitions, and touring the state. He was called to different districts and paid amounts varying from Rs 500 to Rs 3,000 per match. In all this travelling frenzy, Henry told Newsclick, he forgot to get a visa extension. During one of his tours in 2016, the local police started enquiring about his origins and documents. After finding that Henry’s visa and passport both had expired, he was arrested and sentenced to serve four months in Golaghat jail of Assam, followed by deportation to Nigeria.

The remarkable aspect of Henry’s jail sentence was that he never sat idle. He started teaching football to jail inmates inside the premises. This grew, and soon he was organising competitions which were getting attention from the media as well as local politicians. Henry’s four month stay got extended to eight months as the police tried to make arrangements to take Henry to the Nigerian embassy in Delhi, and get him deported. Towards the end of his stay, Henry said, BJP MLA of Khumtai constituency in Assam, Mrinal Saikia, paid him a visit and asked him if would like to stay back in Assam and continue teaching football. Henry said it was his dream to make Assam a thriving football state and that he would love to be able to stay. 

Henry was taken to the Nigerian embassy in Delhi accompanied by the local police. There, they requested embassy officials for a visa extension, but were refused on grounds that since Henry’s visa had already expired, an extension would only be possible from Nigeria. After negotiations, they agreed to renew his passport. Since Saikia had promised Henry that he would secure his visa, the police brought him back to Assam. 

Henry stated in his testimony that he was greeted by Saikia on his arrival. Saikia and Henry gave interviews to News 18, talking about all these developments. This interview has been removed from all online platforms.

In the interview, Saikia says that he has gotten Henry a visa extension of 5 years after talking to the Nigerian embassy. He clearly states that Henry has come back to Assam with Saikia’s aid, and will continue teaching football here. 

Over the next few days, the two visited Rajen Gohain and Atul Bora, two ministers in Assam. Both assured Henry that the ministers had political power and no one would harm him. And so Henry started training Saikia’s club.

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After a month, however, Saikia told Henry that the visa cannot be extended, and that he would have to return to Nigeria. Saikia promised Henry Rs 1.5 lakhs for his journey back. But when he dropped off Henry at the local police station, he only handed him Rs 20,000. The police took Henry to the magistrate, who sentenced him to jail again for the period of one year. The evidence provided against Henry, however, stated that public witnesses had reported him, and not Saikia. In fact, nothing about Saikia’s involvement and promises for visa extension were stated in the case against Henry.

Henry finally came to Delhi last week after his second sentence ended. He was to be taken to the embassy for his travel back to Nigeria to be organised. But Henry’s struggle did not end there. The embassy refused to accept Henry, and handed him to local police and FRRO (Foreigners Regional Registration Office) instead. The Nigerian embassy has repeatedly displayed callousness towards the citizens of its country. Since Henry had the funds for his ticket, the FRRO got his travel booked. Otherwise, the FRRO is known for making foreign citizens languish in deportation camps. These camps are not supposed to be prisons, but often have conditions worse than prisons. Earlier this year, Kelly’s case was reported, who was sent for deportation after a minor conflict between him and FRRO officials. Kelly had a valid visa and passport.

Disputes between the Nigerian embassy and the FRRO have led to Nigerian citizens being stuck in these camps for over a year, since neither party is ready to pay for the travel. Although it is the responsibility of the Indian state to cover travel charges when they deport someone, but the Indian government has repeatedly tried to shift this burden onto the embassies. The embassies often refuse, and people end up staying stuck in inhumane camps for extended durations. 

Henry flew back to Nigeria last week, going back home after six years. 

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Henry at IGI airport, about to depart.


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