Trial over Iranian arms seizure in Nigeria starts

The trial over an illegal Iranian arms shipment intercepted in Nigeria began Wednesday, with both the presiding judge and a defense lawyer questioning suspect statements allegedly obtained by the country's secret police.

Justice Okechukwu Okeke flung one of the statements out into the audience, complaining that the date of a rights waiver came a day after the suspect allegedly confessed to bringing in shipping containers full of 107 mm artillery rockets, rifle rounds and other weapons.

"If you people want to mess up a case, mess it up in your office!" Okeke shouted at prosecutors. "People should not use the court as a cover!"

The judge's irritation did not bode well for prosecutors, who say Iranian citizen Azim Aghajani and Nigerian Usman Abbas Jega orchestrated the illegal arms shipment. The two men have pleaded not guilty to the three-count indictment they face.

Customs officials discovered the weapons Oct. 26 in Lagos' busy Apapa Port, hidden inside of 13 containers marked as holding building materials. Authorities 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 has 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 has cut its diplomatic ties with Tehran.

The beginning of the trial Wednesday saw prosecutors introduce handwritten statements Jega allegedly gave to Nigeria's secretive State Security Service. Service officer Charles Okpekor testified that Jega willingly signed away his rights when giving the statement, though at least one of his waiver forms bore a date the day after his alleged confession.

Okeke also berated the officer for a drawn-out description of the men's arrests, at one point saying: "Young man, I am not here for story time."

Such open antagonism toward the State Security Service is rare in oil-rich Nigeria, where human rights groups say authorities routinely arrest without evidence and police commit so-called "extrajudicial killings" of suspects in custody.

Prosecutors told the court they planned to call a customs official and two employees of the shipping company that carried the arms consignment from Bandar Abbas, a port in southern Iran.

Defense lawyers told Okeke they planned to use one of the men's seized passports as evidence. They also claimed investigators forged an e-mail being used as evidence by prosecutors.

"All is not well with the case of the prosecution," lead defense lawyer Chris Uche told journalists after the hearing. "You see the conflict of the date of the statements."

Investigators have accused Aghajani of being a member of Iran's Revolutionary Guard. Uche instead described the man as an English teacher who came to shepherd the arms shipment through because of his language abilities.

"The (allegation) lacks substance," the lawyer said. "There is no truth."

Aghajani, wearing a brown polo shirt bearing the words "Travel Adventure 3301 Raw," animatedly spoke to his lawyers at breaks during Wednesday's hearing. Jega, in green traditional robes and a prayer cap, waved goodbye and shook hands with court clerks when hustled out of the hearing by security. Two Iranian diplomats also watched the proceedings, which were under guard by a police bomb squad and State Security Service officers wearing black bulletproof vests and carrying assault rifles.

The trial continues Thursday.