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Nigerian Shi'ite Group Vows More Protests Until Leader Freed

Nigerian Shi'ites Vow More Protests Demanding Release of Leader
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Nigerian Shi'ites Vow More Protests Demanding Release of Leader

The Islamic Movement of Nigeria demonstrated again on Wednesday in Abuja. A rally by the group Monday descended into violence, leading to dozens of arrests and injuries. The IMN is demanding the release of its leader, who has been in state custody since a deadly military crackdown on the group more than two years ago.

IMN members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria have been gathering in the Nigerian capital every day since mid-January to protest. Each day, they repeat the same chant.

They’re calling for the release of the Shi’ite cleric Ibraheem Zakzaky, the founder and leader of the IMN. He and his wife have been detained since December 2015. Authorities have refused to comply with a 2016 court order to release them.

IMN’s spokesman Ibrahim Musa told VOA that Zakzaky had a minor stroke and is experiencing eye problems. He said the government has denied Zakzaky’s request to travel abroad for medical treatment.

“He is suffering a lot in detention," Musa said. "So I would believe that the federal government is just buying time probably for him to die in detention and that is why apart from the legal path we have taken, we resorted to protest so at least our voice can be heard by the world.”

The Nigerian government has repeatedly said that IMN breaks laws and incites unrest.

Police have shut down IMN rallies this week.

A protestor shared cell phone footage he shot Monday with VOA.

The video shows police officers on horseback. Some of the officers grab the protestors by their arms. Protesters throw stones at armored tanks.

IMN member Abdullahi Musa, 32, told us what he saw.

“They threw much tear gas and water cannon. Later on used live bullets on us and they shoot a lot of people," he said. "Yesterday, myself, I was injured. On my knee, they hit me with a stick. I have many, like three friends that were seriously injured by gunshots.”

Nigerian police have not responded to accusations that officers used live bullets. In a statement Monday, police said at least 115 people were arrested and 22 officers were injured.

Amnesty International has been investigating the government’s response to IMN since 2013. Isa Sanusi, the media officer of Amnesty’s Nigeria office, spoke to VOA.

“We call on the government to allow them their right to lawful protests and lawful assembly and freedom of expression so that they can be able to voice their grievances, voice their anger," said Isa. "They have been peaceful, and they’ve never been a threat. We see no reason why the government would actually resort to the kind of excessive use of force against them as displayed in Abuja in the last two days.”

Nigeria’s Shi’ite minority says it has faced repression for decades, something IMN attributes to the centuries-old rift between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims.

The IMN does not recognize the authority of the federal government. Some Nigerian states have banned the IMN, describing its members as extremists and insurgents.

Six out of nine of Zakzaky’s children have been killed in clashes with security forces in the past 20 years. In December 2015, soldiers attacked IMN’s headquarters in the city of Zaria in northern Nigeria. More than 300 IMN supporters were killed.

A Nigerian commission of inquiry investigated the incident and said it found evidence of mass graves in Zaria as well as the use of excessive force by the military.

The spokesman for the IMN tells VOA the group will continue to demonstrate until Zakzaky is released.