A top Nigerian court has cleared dozens of the followers of prominent cleric Sheikh Ibrahim al-Zakzaky of criminal charges, raising hopes for the release of the cleric himself, who has been held captive for almost three years by the Abuja government.
Justice David Shiri Wyom of the Kaduna State High Court cleared 80 detainees of the charges on Tuesday. They had been arrested during a government raid on Zakzaky’s Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) headquarters in December 2015.
During that raid, security forces killed some 300 Zakzaky supporters, including three sons of the cleric, and later buried them in mass graves.
Zakzaky and his wife, who were shot and injured, were taken into custody.
They were accused of plotting to attack the military convoy of army Chief Tukur Buratai in an earlier incident.
Zakzaky’s followers say they were merely holding a rally when Buratai’s convoy happened to pass by at the time. Facing the crowds of ralliers, agitated guards shot at them and Buratai’s car sped away, thinking an assassination attempt was underway.
Following the Tuesday ruling, prosecutor Dari Bayero said he was dissatisfied and was “in the process” of appealing the court’s verdict.
But defense lawyer Maxwell Kyon described the ruling as a victory for the movement, saying the court has found “no credible evidence” to charge the detainees.
Some one hundred other members of the movement still remain in custody.
Zakzaky is also “standing trial for having abetted the commission of the offenses,” said the lawyer. “So if court has now found that no such offenses were committed, it becomes difficult to convict someone for abetting the commission of these crimes.”
A Federal High Court ordered his unconditional release in 2016, but the Nigerian government has so far refused to abide by the ruling.
A spokesman for the Islamic Movement said earlier in March that the government in Abuja was planning to keep the cleric and his wife in detention indefinitely.