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Nigeria acquits Shia leader Zakzaky of murder charges

Members of Islamic Movement in Nigeria take part in a demonstration against the detention of their leader Ibrahim El-Zakzaky in Abuja on January 22, 2019   -  
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Behind bars for more than five years, the leader of Nigeria's Shiite minority, Ibrahim Zakzaky, and his wife, accused of murder, were released on Wednesday by the court of Kaduna (North) and regained freedom.

Ibrahim Zakzaky, founder of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), was detained with his wife Zeenah Ibrahim since December 2015, after violence broke out during a religious procession in Zaria (North). The army had fired, killing more than 350 people, mostly unarmed Shiites, according to human rights organizations.

"The court acquitted Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky and his wife of all charges against them. They were released today," one of his lawyers, Sadau Garba, told AFP.

Mr. Zakzaky and his wife were accused of killing a soldier during the protests.

Senior prosecutor Dari Bayero confirmed that the couple had been released, but said he intended to appeal.

"The court ruled that none of the witnesses we presented to the court provided convincing evidence of their guilt," he told AFP.

"This does not mean that they can no longer be prosecuted ... we will certainly present charges on appeal," he added.

The lawyer for the religious leader and his wife said they would "certainly seek damages from the Kaduna State government for all the deprivation and suffering they have suffered."

"They must now return home, rest and attend to their urgent medical needs," he continued.

In late 2016, a federal court had ruled the detention of the religious leader illegal and ordered his release. But this decision had never been executed.

The MIN, inspired by the Islamic Revolution in Iran in the late 1970s, is still close to Tehran today and meets great hostility in Nigeria, where the Sunni Muslim elite does not hide its affinities with Saudi Arabia. The movement was banned by the authorities in 2019.

Its demonstrations are regularly crushed in blood.

"Victory of perseverance"

"This ruling not only vindicates them and all members of the MIN in Nigeria, but it is also a victory of perseverance in the face of extreme persecution," the movement reacted in a statement.

"It is a victory for truth and justice against tyranny and impunity," the statement said.

The human rights organization Amnesty International denounced on Twitter the "illegal detention" of Sheikh Zakzaky, wondering if it was not part of an "attempt to cover up the atrocious crimes committed by members of the security forces in Zaria in December 2015 that left hundreds dead."

At the time, the Nigerian military accused the MIN members of trying to ambush the army chief in Zaria.

In addition to the nearly 350 mostly unarmed Shiites killed and buried in mass graves by the military, hundreds more were arrested.

An official report from Kaduna State later acknowledged that the military had acted disproportionately and that the soldiers involved should be punished, but none were ever prosecuted.

By 2019, more than 100 detainees had been released, and by February 2020, more than 80 had been released, but Zakzaky and his wife were still behind bars.