Six Shi'ites dead in Nigeria clashes over imprisoned leader

2019-07-23 19:49
People walk past a fire service station set ablaze by members of the shiite Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) during clashes with the police in the streets of Abuja. (Kola Sulaimon, AFP)

People walk past a fire service station set ablaze by members of the shiite Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) during clashes with the police in the streets of Abuja. (Kola Sulaimon, AFP)

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At least six Shi'ite Muslim protesters were killed in clashes with Nigerian police in the capital Abuja on Monday, witnesses said, the latest deadly violence over the detention of a pro-Iranian religious leader.

A police officer was also killed in the bloodshed, which broke out when hundreds of protesters from the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), a Shia sect, marched demanding the release of cleric Ibrahim Zakzaky, who has been held since December 2015 on charges including terrorism.

Police opened fire with live ammunition as well as tear gas, while protesters threw petrol bombs at the officers, according to an AFP journalist who saw six bodies, including that of a teenager.

One Shi'ite protester, Abdullahi Musa, said: "I am right now in front of six dead bodies, one of them is an underage boy."

"Many, many people were shot."

The IMN later said a further five protesters had been confirmed dead and put the toll at 11.

A police officer was killed in the violence and two officers were seriously injured, according to Nigerian police spokesperson Frank Mba.

He said the IMN "embarked on a streak of destruction" during the demonstration, adding that 54 Shi'ites were in police custody. A local fire station was set ablaze.

Amnesty International condemned the police action as a "reckless use of force".

"This new crackdown is part of a shocking pattern in which security forces have used live ammunition to disperse IMN supporters who are simply exercising their freedom of expression," the rights group said.

Nigerian broadcast company Channels TV said one of its journalists was hit by a stray bullet.

Years of bloodshed

There have been frequent clashes between the security forces and the IMN in recent years.

Zakzaky wants an Iranian-style Islamic revolution in secular Nigeria.

He was detained after violence during a religious procession in Kaduna State, northern Nigeria in December 2015.

Rights groups say some 350 mostly unarmed Shi'ite marchers were killed by the Nigerian army and buried in mass graves.

The military denies the claim.

In October 2018, the IMN and human rights groups said, more than 40 people were killed when the security forces opened fire on crowds on the outskirts of the capital. The official toll is six.

Northern Nigeria is majority Sunni Muslim.

The IMN have held almost daily marches in the capital in recent months amid concerns Zakzaky's health is deteriorating.

Zakzaky remains in government custody despite the federal high court ordering his release.

The government has refused and filed fresh criminal charges, including culpable homicide that is "punishable with death".

The move has enraged his supporters who say Zakzaky is in urgent need of medical treatment being denied by the authorities.

'Assassinate my parents'

After a rare visit by medical staff, the IMN said Zakzaky was suffering from a number of conditions including lead poisoning, high blood pressure, and glaucoma which can lead to partial blindness.

Zakzaky's wife, Zeenah Ibrahim, has also been detained since 2015. She had an un-treated bullet wound, medical staff said.

Their son Mohammed Zakzaky earlier this month said it was a miracle they were still alive.

"It appears that there is a deliberate attempt to assassinate my parents through deliberate negligence towards their health," he said.

A spokesperson for President Muhammadu Buhari last week called for an end to the IMN's protests which "openly insult the President".

The IMN said they would continue demonstrating as past court orders for Zakzaky's release had been ignored.

"This government deliberately intends to provoke the movement into violence," said IMN spokesperson Ibrahim Musa in a statement.

The IMN, which emerged as a student movement in the late 1970s, was inspired by the Islamic revolution in Iran.

The sect is met with hostility in Nigeria, where the Sunni elite are allied with Saudi Arabia.

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