Nigerian Court Orders Release of Shiite Leader Detained for A Year

Zakzaky protest
Protesters from the pro-Iranian Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) hold a banner with a photo of detained leader Ibrahim Zakzaky as they call for his release in the northern Nigerian city of Kano, on August 11, 2016. Zakzaky has been detained without trial since clashes between the IMN and Nigerian security forces in December 2015. AMINU ABUBAKAR/AFP/Getty

A Nigerian court has ordered the release of the leader of the country's main Shiite Muslim group, who has been detained since mass clashes with the army in December 2015, a spokesman for the group confirmed to Newsweek.

A division of the Federal High Court in the Nigerian capital Abuja also awarded 25 million naira ($80,000) in damages to Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky, the head of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), according to Abdulmumin Giwa, an IMN spokesman who attended the court hearing in the capital Abuja on Friday. Giwa adds that the court ordered the release of Zakzaky's wife as well, who has also been held in detention for almost a year, and awarded her 25 million naira ($80,000) in damages.

Nigerian security forces arrested Zakzaky after clashes erupted in the northern city of Zaria, Kaduna state, in December 2015. The Nigerian army accused Zakzaky's followers of attempting to assassinate the chief of army staff, which the IMN denied. A judicial commission found that the army killed at least 347 members of the Shiite group in the clashes, while one soldier also died.

The court's judge, Justice Gabriel Kolawole, rejected the claim by the counsel to Nigeria's intelligence agency, the State Security Service (DSS), that Zakzaky was being held in protective custody. Kolawole cited the case of Mohammed Yusuf—the founder of Boko Haram, whose death in Nigerian police custody in 2009 provided the spark for the Islamist group's deadly insurgency—as a dangerous precedent. Boko Haram has gone on to kill thousands of people and displace millions, mostly in northeast Nigeria.

"If the applicant dies in custody, which I do not pray for, it could result in many needless deaths," Kolawole stated, according to the Nigerian news site Premium Times.

The judge ordered the Nigerian federal government to provide secure accommodation for Zakzaky and his family in Kaduna state or another suitable part of northern Nigeria. The DSS are due to release the cleric within 45 days, the judge said.

Newsweek contacted two spokesmen for Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari to enquire as to how the government would ensure Zakzaky's safety upon his release, but received no immediate reply.

Related: Is the Nigerian government trying to ban Shiite Islam?

Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, accused the Nigerian military of carrying out "mass slaughter" in Zaria, using excessive force and burying the dead in mass graves. A Nigerian military spokesman told Newsweek that Amnesty's report was "one-sided."

The Zaria conflict has led to several further confrontations between the IMN and Nigeria's security apparatus. On October 12, which marked the Shiite feast of Ashura, security forces clashed with Shiites gathered for religious processions in various parts of Nigeria, killing at least 11 people. On November 14, police officers clashed with Shiite Muslims carrying out a procession near the northern city of Kano, with at least 10 people being killed.

Following the publication of a Kaduna state judicial commission of inquiry into the Zaria clashes in July, the state banned the IMN, saying it was an unregistered organization that promoted radical views among its followers. Several other northern Nigerian states have followed suit. Nigerian Shiites have decried the bans as an attempt to prohibit the practice of their religion.

Nigeria is home to almost equal numbers of Muslims and Christians, with a mostly Christian south and a mostly Muslim north. The majority of Nigerian Muslims are Sunni; the number of Shiite Muslims is not clear, but Human Rights Watch estimated it to be around 3 million.

Zakzaky is an Iranian-trained cleric who founded the IMN in the 1980s. He was arrested several times under previous military regimes in Nigeria and critics say his movement is trying to establish a state within a state, but the IMN maintains that it is a law-abiding and peaceful organization.