Nigerian prosecutors on Wednesday charged nearly 200 members of a pro-Iranian Shiite group with illegal possession of firearms following December clashes with troops that led to claims of hundreds of deaths, their lawyers said on Wednesday.
They were however not arraigned in a proper court setting, but an improvised court room, within the Kaduna prisons, where they are being held.
Some 191 members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) were charged with illegal possession of firearms and causing a public disturbance, according to charge papers read out in court.
All the suspects pleaded not guilty.
“My clients were arraigned today (Wednesday) in court for the first time since they were arrested following the incidents in Zaria in December last year”, defence lawyer Husseini Ibrahim said after the court session.
No official death toll has yet been given for the two days of clashes starting on December 12, which were sparked when IMN followers blocked the convoy of Chief of Army Staff General Tukur Yusuf Buratai in the city of Zaria, in northern Kaduna state.
Following the clashes, the headquarters of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) was raided and the group’s leader, Ibrahim Zakzaky, was arrested and kept in custody.
The group said some 730 of its members were unaccounted for, “either killed by the army or… in detention”.
Human Rights Watch has said “at least 300” were killed while Amnesty International put the figures at “hundreds”.
Wednesday’s court hearing was held inside the central prison in the northern city of Kaduna where the suspects are being held for security reasons, according to prosecution lawyer Dari Bayero.
“The suspects were arraigned for illegal possession of firearms and public disturbance and incitement,” Bayero said.
Four of the accused who are under the age of 18 were released on bail while the rest were remanded in prison custody until March 29 when the court resumes, both lawyers said.
Government and local human rights commission has set up panels to probe the clashes.