LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — People danced in the streets in southern Nigeria on Wednesday, celebrating news that a British court has ordered the release of a former governor convicted of stealing more than $70 million from Nigeria's treasury.
James Ibori, governor of oil-rich Delta State from 1999 to 2007, was halfway through serving a 13-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to money-laundering and fraud.
British High Court Judge Juliet May on Wednesday ordered his immediate release based on supported allegations that police investigators took bribes and prosecutors covered it up.
In Nigeria, where corruption is endemic, Ibori supporters danced for joy and set off fireworks, saying they hoped he would be home for Christmas. His supporters say Ibori did good things in his state, and argue that his incarceration is unfair while other Nigerians accused of much worse crimes walk free. They point to a former national security adviser and others charged with diverting $2.1 billion meant to fight the Boko Haram Islamic insurgency that has killed more than 20,000 people and allegedly used for bribes to support former President Goodluck Jonathan in the 2015 election.
Jonathan lost to President Muhammadu Buhari, who campaigned on a platform to end the gross corruption that emptied Nigerian coffers. Wednesday's judgment is another blow to Buhari's anti-corruption campaign in which hundreds have been detained but no one has been successfully prosecuted.
It was unclear Wednesday night if Ibori, 57, was free or under house arrest. Nigeria's Vanguard newspaper published photographs it said showed him free. A telephone operator at Bedford Prison, where he was held, said no officials were on duty to confirm his release.
The BBC reported that Home Secretary Amber Rudd did not intend to deport Ibori until he handed over 18 million pounds ($22 million) in "proceeds of crime." It said his release could complicate ongoing court proceedings to confiscate property including a $500,000 1962 Mercedes-Benz Maybach vehicle paid for in cash, a $2.6 million mansion in South Africa and a $383,000 British country property in Dorset.
It's not known how much other money could have been hidden by Ibori, who has been linked to four offshore bank accounts including one in Switzerland used to buy a $20 million private jet, according to reports from the leaked Panama Papers.
Judge May criticized the "quite extraordinary" attempts by British officials to hold Ibori. "Why doesn't the secretary of state just send him back (home)?" the BBC quoted her as asking the court. "He wants to go. She wants him to go."
Ibori, who was a cashier in a do-it-yourself shop in London before he returned home and suddenly became incredibly wealthy, was a test case for the British Department for International Development's initiative to prosecute corrupt foreign officials. He was acquitted of corruption in Nigeria in 2009, arrested in Dubai in 2010 and extradited to Britain.
His prosecution was "highly politically motivated," Casely Omon-Ihabor, one of the lawyers who represented Ibori in his Nigeria trial, told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Associated Press reporters Bashir Adigun in Abuja and Hilary Uguru in Warri, Nigeria, contributed to this report.