Kingsley Nwezeh in Abuja and John Shiklam in Kaduna
Respite is underway for the embattled leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), Sheikh Ibrahim el-Zakzaky and his wife, Zeenat, as the Department of State Services (DSS) said yesterday it would ensure compliance with a Kaduna State High Court order granting them permission to travel to India for medical treatment.
Their travel application was granted just as the international human rights watchdog, Amnesty International alleged that at least three IMN members have died in police custody.
The rights group added that another 15 members of the group, including minors, have been detained “incommunicado for weeks.”
The court, presided by Justice Darius Khobo, in a ruling on an application by Mr. Femi Falana (SAN), counsel to el-Zakzaky and wife, ordered that the duo be allowed to travel to India to attend to their deteriorating health.
The judge, however, ordered that officials of the Kaduna State government and personnel of the DSS must accompany them during the medical trip.
The judge added that they can only travel to the country they indicated (India) and should return to the country to face trial after the medical treatment.
The Shiite leader and his wife had applied for bail to enable them to seek medical treatment abroad following injuries they sustained during a clash between his followers and the Nigerian Army in Zaria, Kaduna State in December 2015, which led to their arrest and continuous detention.
Over 300 people said to be mainly Shiite members and a soldier were killed during the clashes.
After listening to Falana’s submission, the court agreed that failure to grant the application might lead to them losing their lives.
The court agreed that they require treatment in India as submitted by Falana, and supported with eight exhibits and affidavits from medical experts.
The defence counsel had argued that the application is not one for bail; so, Section 174 does not apply as argued by the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP).
The defence counsel also argued that the right to life is a threshold issue, which cannot play second fiddle to Kaduna State Administration of Criminal Justice Law.
The court rejected the attempt to discredit the medical reports attached, which were obtained based on its order.
The court also acknowledged that Nigeria has no medical authority to attend to the applicants as Falana rightly submitted and the respondents did not lead any evidence to that effect.
Citing Suleiman V COP Plateau State, Falana had argued that no dead person could be made to stand trial.
The court took judicial notice of the fact as noted by Supreme Court in Joshua Dariye’s case, that the application of this nature is often granted.
The Kaduna State government is prosecuting the Shiite leader and his wife for alleged culpable homicide, unlawful assembly, disturbance of public peace and criminal conspiracy, among others.
Reacting to the ruling in an interview with journalists after the court session, the prosecuting counsel, Mr. Dari Bayero, said his team would study the ruling before taking any decision.
He said the context of the court ruling was that el-Zakzaky and his wife were granted leave to travel out for urgent medical attention.
According to him, the court looked into the medical reports filed by the Shiite leader and wife and discovered that the IMN leader was indeed in dire need of medical attention.
“The court looked through the medical reports filed and believed el-Zakzaky is indeed in dire need of medical attention. This is not a bail, but a leave to travel,” he said.
He said as soon as the accused were discharged from the hospital and they returned to the country, their trial would resume.
On whether el-Zakzaky has a choice to go to other hospital for the treatment apart from India, Bayero said: “He specifically choose to go to the hospital in India.
“We will go and sit down and study the ruling and explore whether there is need for us to do appeal. We have a month to go through that.”
One of the counsel to el-Zakzaky, Marshal Abubakar, also told journalists that the application filed by Falana, the lead counsel, was not a bail application.
“It is not a bail application as is being wrongly reported by the news media. It was an application to save the life of the applicants, el-Zakzaky and his wife,” he explained.
Asked how soon his clients could travel out for treatment, he said: “The ruling came up today and the court of Justice Darius graciously agreed with Mr. Femi Falana (SAN) and the various medical reports that were attached to the applications.
“There were eight medical reports that clearly show the applicants are in dire need of medical treatment abroad.
“The court agreed that they should be allowed immediate treatment that they sought for and with supervision.”
Also in its reaction, the Kaduna State government said it would study the court ruling and make its position known.
Asked if the government would obey the court order and allow el-Zakzaky to travel, Mr. Samuel Aruwan, who doubles as spokesman of Governor Nasir el-Rufai as well as Commissioner for Home Affairs, said: “You will hear from us after we receive and study the judgment.”
Meanwhile, the free el-Zakzaky campaign committee has applauded the court ruling, saying it is “a victory for truth and justice against tyranny and impunity”.
Chairman of the campaign group, Mr. Abdurrahman Abubakar, in a statement, called on the government to respect the court ruling and grant the duo instant permission to travel for their treatment.
DSS Pledges Compliance
In the meantime, the DSS said yesterday it was taking steps to comply with the court ruling.
A statement by the service last night said it was in receipt of the court order granting el-Zakzaky leave to travel to India for medical treatment.
“This is to inform the public that the DSS has received the order granting Ibrahim el-Zakzaky leave to travel to India for medical treatment,” it said, adding: “Consequently, the service is liaising with relevant stakeholders to ensure compliance.”
The statement signed by spokesman of the agency, Mr. Peter Afunanya, said: “Conformity is in line with the service’s avowed commitment to the rule of law inherent in a democracy.”
Three Shiite Members Die in Police Custody, Says AI
In a related development, Amnesty International yesterday said at least three members of the Shiite IMN had died in police custody.
Another 15 members of the group, including minors, have been detained “incommunicado for weeks,” the rights group claimed.
The IMN members were among the dozens arrested in July after their protests turned violent.
The protesters, who were calling for the release of their leader, accused the police of shooting at unarmed campaigners. The police, however, accused the IMN of engaging in violent protests.
Over a dozen people, including a senior police officer and a youth corps member were killed in the protests in Abuja.
Amnesty International, however, called for an investigation into the death of the trio.
It said in a statement by Mr. Osai Ojigho, Director of Amnesty International Nigeria: “The Nigerian authorities must immediately investigate the deaths from gunshot wounds of at least three members of the IMN while in police custody and provide urgent and adequate medical care to 15 others who need treatment for life-threatening gunshot wounds.
“The 15 individuals, including two minors, have been held incommunicado at the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) detention facility since 22 July, following a government crackdown on IMN supporters protesting against their leader’s detention.
“The three who died, after being denied medical treatment for their injuries, are understood to have died between the date of their detention and 24 July.
“We have information confirming that three protesters died of gunshot wounds at a detention facility in Abuja after being denied medical treatment. Their deaths while in police custody sent a chilling message about the authorities’ use of lethal force to stifle dissent and their contempt for people’s right to access medical care.”
Amnesty International also called for an inquiry into the July protest, especially the killing of 11 protesters, Deputy Commissioner of Police Usman Umar and Channels TV reporter, Precious Owolabi.
It said only an independent investigation could determine those responsible for the violence and deaths that occurred and allow for prosecution of those responsible in fair trials.