A federal judge in Nigeria on Monday ordered two men accused of orchestrating an illegal Iranian arms shipment to be released from secret police custody and put in prison as their trial continues.
The decision by Justice Okechukwu Okeke pulls Iranian citizen Azim Aghajani and Nigerian Ali Usman Abbas Jega away from the State Security Service, the agency that investigated the case and continued to interrogate them even as their trial began. Lead defense lawyer Chris Uche said the decision also would allow the men to have proper access to their counsels, as the secretive agency had blocked previous meetings.
Aghajani and Jega also pleaded not guilty Monday to a new four-count indictment over the seized weapons, which includes a new charge accusing them of falsifying documents used by the customs officials.
Authorities discovered the weapons Oct. 26 in Lagos' busy Apapa Port, hidden inside of 13 containers marked as holding building materials. The weapons included mortars, rockets and ammunition typically used in anti-aircraft guns. Investigators later arrested Jega and Aghajani, a man prosecutors say is a member of Iran's Revolutionary Guard.
Prosecutors have said the shipment was bound for Gambia, though Nigerian officials initially claimed the weapons were intended to be used by politicians over the coming April elections. The case sparked a diplomatic row for Iran, barred by the U.N. from shipping weapons internationally. Nigeria has reported Iran to the U.N. over the shipment and Gambia and neighboring Senegal have cut its diplomatic ties with Tehran.
On Monday, prosecutor O.O. Fatunde argued that the two men should continue to be held by the secret police, saying the agency previously had used a helicopter to make sure the men arrived for a court appearance. The State Security Service's operatives have guarded the federal high court complex in a quiet neighborhood along the Lagos Lagoon since the trial began, typically wearing black and carrying new Israeli-made machine gun.
Fatunde also said that the agency, which is feared by Nigerians, would "ensure the accused persons are well-fed."
Okeke did not accept that argument.
"You have said the eyes of the world are on this case," the judge said. "You are now telling the world that people kept in prison custody are not fed?"
Okeke's decision also marked a rare sign of judicial independence in oil-rich Nigeria, a nation of 150 million people where corruption and graft often carries more weight than the law.
The trial continues Tuesday.