ABUJA— After more than 40 days in jail, three Lebanese men were charged with six counts of terrorism-related crimes in a Nigerian court Wednesday. The defense argued that the first charge, membership in Hezbollah is not a crime in Nigeria, rendering the rest of the charges baseless.
The three men stood on a raised platform stoically while the charges were read into a microphone. A fourth man accused on similar charges, is “at large”, according to authorities.
To each charge each man quietly replied, “not guilty.”
First, they were accused of being members of Hezbollah, a Lebanese political party that has a formidable military. Hezbollah is also considered a terrorist organization in the United States and Israel.
In Nigeria, Hezbollah it is not listed as a terrorist organization but the prosecution says membership is still a criminal act.
Defense attorney Ahmed Raji said he wants the court to drop all of the charges because it’s not the judiciary’s job to decide how Nigeria wants to view Hezbollah.
“The court cannot make that decision. To declare a body as a terrorist organization it has to go through a process under the law. And we are saying that they have not complied with that. The government has not made a pronouncement to that effect. Without that in place there is no way they can sustain the charges,” he said.
Other charges are more clearly crimes in Nigeria. The men are accused of receiving training for the purpose of conducting a terrorist attack and of failing to disclose information that could lead to the arrest of another person wanted for terrorism.
Mustapha Fawaz and Fauzi Fawaz - the man said to be at large - is charged with permitting a meeting “connected with an act of terrorism” at their supermarket, Amigos. The popular store in the capital has been closed since the arrests, along with an amusement park also owned by the two men.
Abdullah Tahini is accused of being Hezbollah’s coordinator in Nigeria and of trying to take $61,000 in cash out of Nigeria without declaring it. The fourth man charged is identified as Talal Roda.
Outside the courtroom in the lobby, the prosecution declined comment. Reporters asked lawyer Raji about a weapons charge. The prosecution responded that the men were directly supporting terrorist activity by storing weapons for alleged terrorists.
The charges did not mention the arms stash found in the northern city of Kano last month that started the whole thing. Anti-tank weapons, guns, bombs, and other weapons were found under a home belonging to a Lebanese man who is not believed to be in Nigeria right now. Security forces declared the weapons the property of Hezbollah and arrested four men, including the three who stand accused and a fourth man, Hussain Nurudeen, who was released without being charged.
The accused hold both Nigerian and Lebanese citizenship but live and run businesses in Nigeria. Arrested between May 16 and 28 in northern Nigeria, all three remain in jail.
Defense lawyers will request bail at a July 8 hearing and continue to pursue a $19 million lawsuit, saying that until Wednesday, their clients were unlawfully held without charges.
The prosecution said it will oppose bail due to the seriousness of the charges and for security purposes.