ABUJA — Three Lebanese men imprisoned in Nigeria have been accused of "terrorism-related" crimes after previous charges were dismissed last week on a technicality. The three are suing the government for nearly $19 million on the grounds of unlawful imprisonment, while lawyers are trying to negotiate the release of a fourth man who was arrested.
The four men of Lebanese nationality were arrested between May 16 and May 28 in northern Nigeria, and have been in police custody ever since.
But defense attorney Robert Clarke argues that when prosecutors charged his clients in a court that had no jurisdiction over terrorism-related crimes, they essentially were not charging the men at all.
He says in Nigeria it is illegal to jail people for an unreasonable period of time without charging them with a crime.
“They have been arrested for the period of almost 40 days, in breach of the constitutional provisions of Nigeria that accused persons can only be held in detention without lawful escapes not more than 48 hours,” Clarke said.
Last week, defense lawyers argued that all four men should receive more than $6 million each in damages for unlawful imprisonment.
On Monday, lawyers agreed to negotiate for the release of one of the accused, Hussain Nurudeen, and said he will not be suing. Clarke says the prosecution has already filed fresh “terrorism-related” charges against his other three clients in the Federal High Court, but an arraignment date has not been set.
Prosecutor Clifford Osagie declined to comment on the details of the charges, but the men have previously been accused of being the owners of a massive stash of heavy artillery found in northern Nigeria, including anti-tank weapons, rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s. Many of the weapons appeared to be severely corroded and others were covered in rust. Defense lawyers say the men neither own those weapons nor know who does.
Clarke says he does not yet have details of the charges, but says the three men will be suing regardless of the seriousness of the alleged crimes.
“We are asking the court that despite and in spite of anything we are still entitled to damages,” Clarke said.
The four Lebanese men have been accused of being members of Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Lebanese political party and militant group that is considered a terrorist organization in the United States.
But another defense lawyer, Ahmed Raji, says being a member of Hezbollah is not a crime in Nigeria because it is not legally considered a terrorist organization in the country. He says the men have not been accused of conducting actual attacks.
“The accusation is possession of weapons to be used for terrorist activity, that is all,” Raji said.
The accused are all long-time residents of Nigeria and prominent businessmen in the capital and the northern city of Kano. Some analysts say the arrests are a sign of Iran and Hezbollah’s growing interest in using the chaos in West Africa as a staging ground for attacks against the United States and Israel.
Others disagree, saying increasing reports could mean increased fear mongering, and not an actual trend.