ABUJA, NIGERIA— Nigeria's trial of three Lebanese-born men who are accused of terrorist-related activities associated with Hezbollah concluded Monday. Defense lawyers argued that some of the charges against the men had not been proven, and others were not criminal acts in the first place.
The mood in this hot courtroom was surprisingly relaxed given the seriousness of the charges and the judge told court officers to bring in chairs to make the accused men more comfortable.
The accused - Mustapha Fawaz, Abdullah Tahini and Talal Roda - are Nigeria residents with both Lebanese and Nigerian citizenship. A representative from the Lebanese embassy watched the proceedings from near the back of the courtroom.
The men had been charged with 15 counts, including trafficking weapons, money laundering and plotting terrorist attacks for the Lebanese group Hezbollah. If found guilty, they could be sentenced to anywhere from five years to life in prison, depending on the charge.
On the steps outside the courtroom, defense attorney Robert Clarke said his clients are innocent and that one of the main charges - membership in Hezbollah - isn’t even a crime in Nigeria.
“We have argued that the law is on our side, that the federal government has not declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization, therefore no organization in Nigeria can charge them to court [for] belonging to an organization,” said Clarke.
In court, Clarke said that if the judge found the defendants guilty, it would be a signal to the international community that Nigeria now views Hezbollah as a terrorist organization - a move likely to be frowned on some Arab countries, most especially Lebanon, a key economic ally.
Besides, Clarke said, legally the court cannot make such a declaration - only the president can.
Hezbollah is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States but many other countries view the group as a Lebanese political party with a powerful militia.
Some analysts say Hezbollah has a growing interest in West Africa because regional chaos and porous borders could be an aid to weapons trafficking. There never have been any known Hezbollah-related attacks in Nigeria.
For the prosecution in this case, Hezbollah membership is a crime in Nigeria because terrorism is a crime.
Prosecution attorney Simon Edege argued in court that any groups committing what legally are considered acts of terror are, in terms of domestic laws, terrorist groups.
And “terrorism” in Nigeria legally includes making plans for attacks, or membership in a group that commits terrorist acts.
Defense attorney Ahmed Raji said that even if the prosecution’s argument holds up legally, however, the evidence against his clients was insufficient to conclude they are linked to any of the alleged crimes.
“No weapon was brought before the court from Kano, it was just photographs. This is not good evidence. That is not admissible evidence to prove a crime. Anybody could have taken a photograph of any weapons anywhere. Is that how they prove crime anywhere in the world?” asked Raji.
Raji said the defendants are suing the government for $19 million for unlawful imprisonment because they were locked up for nearly two months without charges.
The initial arrest came after security forces said they found a stash of weapons under a house in northern Nigeria belonging to another Lebanese man, who remains out of the country.
The judge has not set a date to announce his verdict, but he said it will be soon.