Vowing that the only thing that will stop their protests is the release of their leader, dozens of Shi’ite Muslims marched in the Nigerian capital of Abuja Monday demanding the government free Ibrahim Zakazy.
Zakazy, who heads the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) has been jailed since December 2015, when security forces killed hundreds of members in a crackdown on a group estimated to have 3 million followers.
Monday’s protests quickly turned violent as Nigerian police fired bullets and tear gas to disperse protesters. Organisers said at least one demonstrator was killed and several were wounded by gunfire.
“As we started protesting they started shooting tear gas and using water cannons,” Abdullahi Muhammad, an IMN youth leader, told Reuters by phone. “We refused to disperse and they used bullets as well, and they shot so many people.”
“They want to push us to violence but they couldn’t, so that is why they are using live ammunition, thinking that killing will stop us. No amount of killing will stop us,” he added.
Muhammad said he witnessed police dragging bullet-hit protesters into a van and sitting on them, adding that he did not know if they were dead or alive.
At least eight other IMN members were hit by bullets and were now receiving treatment, Muhammad told Reuters. An IMN statement said at least one protester was killed.
Police said in a statement the protesters had injured 22 officers, and they arrested 115 demonstrators.
The IMN statement said about 230 members were arrested.
The violent repression of the group and the detention of its leader have drawn accusations that President Muhammadu Buhari’s government is abusing human rights. The IMN, which has held regular peaceful protests in Abuja in recent months, says Zakzaky must be freed after a court ruled his detention without charge illegal.
The crackdown has sparked fears that IMN could become radicalised, in much the same way the Sunni Muslim militant group Boko Haram turned into a violent insurgency in 2009 after police killed its leader.
Nearly all of the Muslims that make up around half of Nigeria’s population are Sunnis. The IMN was founded in the 1980s after the revolution in mainly Shi’ite Iran in 1979, which inspired the group’s founders.