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A Nigerian court on Monday granted bail to a detained Shiite leader and his wife to fly to India for medical care, in a move that could defuse tensions after his group was banned following a spate of bloody protests.
Ibrahim Zakzaky, the founder of the pro-Iranian Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), has been in custody along with his wife Zeenah Ibrahim since their arrest in December 2015.
The judge in the northern city of Kaduna “ordered that Zakzaky be flown to India for proper medical attention”, lawyer Femi Falana told AFP.
Another member of the defence team said the cleric’s wife was also allowed abroad for treatment.
The Department of State Services (DSS), the Nigerian secret police that has been holding Zakzaky and his wife, said it would obey the court ruling.
“The Service is liaising with relevant stakeholders to ensure compliance,” the domestic intelligence agency said in a statement.
“Conformity with the order is in line with the Service’s avowed commitment to the rule of law inherent in a democracy,” it added.
The government late last month outlawed the IMN on “terrorism” grounds after protests demanding Zakzaky’s release descended into bloodshed following a security clampdown.
Zakzaky’s daughter Suhailah told AFP the ruling was “good news” but said she was still waiting to find out the conditions of his bail.
The authorities have previously ignored a court order to release the IMN leader.
Prosecutors said officials were studying the latest decision to see whether to appeal.
One of the defence lawyers, Haruna Magashi, said the court had ruled Zakzaky, believed to be in his mid-sixties, could fly for treatment under government supervision.
His legal team were confident the decision would not be overturned and the couple could leave Nigeria “as early as this week”, Magashi said.
Zakzaky was arrested in 2015 after violence that rights groups say saw the army kill some 350 of his followers and bury many in mass graves.
Supporters have been holding almost daily protests in the capital Abuja pushing for his release amid fears over his deteriorating health.
At least eight people, including six protesters, a senior police officer and a trainee journalist, were killed during protests on July 22. The IMN said 20 of its members were shot dead.
Zakzaky’s lawyers say he has lost his sight in one eye and is on the verge of going blind in the other, while he also has some bullet fragments lodged in his body from the 2015 crackdown.
The Shiite leader and his wife did not attend Monday’s hearing in Kaduna because of their poor health.
“They were too sick to be physically present in court,” Falana told AFP.
A court in 2016 ordered the release of Zakzaky and his wife — but the authorities refused and filed charges against him including homicide.
Zakzaky and the IMN, which was founded as a student group in the 1970s, have been at loggerheads with the government for years because of his call for an Iranian-style Islamic revolution in Nigeria.
After the ban, the country’s police chief last week labelled anyone associated with the group an “enemy of the state” and called on the public to help track down its members.
Human Rights Watch called on the authorities to reverse the decision and warned that it could “portend an even worse security force crackdown”.
Amnesty International on Monday alleged that at least three protesters detained during the violence on July 22 had died from gunshot wounds after being denied treatment in custody and another 15 were being held incommunicado.
Shiites make up a small minority in predominantly Sunni Muslim northern Nigeria.
Estimates put their numbers at around four million in a national population of about 190 million.