LAGOS, Nigeria – An Iranian charged with orchestrating an illegal arms shipment into Nigeria that contained mortars and military grade weapons pleaded not guilty Tuesday during a surprise court hearing.
Azim Aghajani and his alleged accomplice, Nigerian national Usman Abbas Jega, both maintained their innocence against three charges over the shipment security agents discovered in October. Judge O.J. Okeke ordered the two men to be held by the State Security Service, Nigeria's secret police, until a Feb. 15 trial.
Israeli officials initially claimed the weapons were bound for the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. But the intended final destination of the weapons appears to be Gambia, a narrow sliver of a country surrounded by Senegal, though Nigerian authorities initially said they believed the weapons were bound for politicians to cause unrest around the country's upcoming April elections.
Prosecutors argued that Aghajani, who investigators accuse of being a member of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, needed to be held under extraordinary security as the case has international implications. Lawyer A.B. Onifade, a stand-in attorney for the two men, argued for his clients to be put into Nigeria's troubled prison system so lawyers could see them.
"We have been denied access to them," Onifade told The Associated Press.
He said he hoped the men would receive bail.
Security agents discovered the arms in late October inside of 13 containers marked as building materials. Agents found 107mm artillery rockets, rifle rounds and other weapons. Those rockets can accurately hit targets more than 5 miles (8.5 kilometers) away with a 40-foot (12-meter) killing radius. Insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq have used similar rockets against U.S. troops. China, the United States and Russia manufacture versions of the rocket, as does Iran.
The cargo came from Bandar Abbas, a port in southern Iran, the shipper later confirmed. The shipment stopped in Mumbai, India, before arriving at Lagos' busy and chaotic Apapa Port. Nigerian authorities say Aghajani organized the secret arms shipment through a Tehran-based company.
Internal government reports seen by the AP in November say Aghajani received a visa to travel to Nigeria after getting an endorsement from Sheik Ali Abbas Othman, also known as Usman Abbas Jega, a Nigerian who worked for Radio Tehran's Hausa-language service and who studied in Iran.
The other Iranian implicated in the case, Sayed Akbar Tahmaesebi, entered Nigeria to work at Iran's embassy there, according to internal Nigerian reports. Authorities say Tahmaesebi, who had diplomatic immunity from charges, left the country.
While apparently orchestrating the weapons shipment with the knowledge of the Iranian government, Aghajani appeared to have a poor geographic understanding of Nigeria. The documents claim he initially wanted the consignments shipped to Abuja. When Aghajani was told there is no port in Abuja, which lies hundreds of miles (kilometers) from the coast, he chose Lagos as the destination.
The upcoming trial could offer clues about where the weapons were going — and why Iran would risk U.N. sanctions to ship the arms.
However, the case's legal twists and turns have been as muddled as the weapons' final destination. A judge in Abuja initially granted Aghajani bail, but he never was released from custody. A court in Abuja dismissed the charges Monday against the two men to have them refiled in Lagos.
On Tuesday, defense lawyers and court officials received no word of the sudden hearing for the men. Suddenly, the quiet court complex along the Lagos Lagoon filled with security agents dressed in black, carrying submachine guns.
Aghajani wore an untucked white polo shirt, while Jega wore green traditional robes, his prayer cap taken away from him before the hearing started. Aghajani rolled his eyes at time and stared stern-faced, speaking only to declare his innocence and say that he understood English "not very well."