The imprisoned leader of a banned Shia Muslim group in Nigeria has been flown to India for medical treatment.
A court recently granted him medical leave after nearly four years in custody during a lengthy legal process.
In a statement, the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) said Ibraheem Zakzaky and his wife had left for Delhi, accompanied by a government security escort to ensure their return.
The group says he has suffered two minor strokes and is losing his sight.
Sheikh Zakzaky, 66, has been charged with culpable homicide and other offences, all of which he denies.
The couple are expected to stand trial after the treatment is completed.
The pro-Iranian IMN has accused the Nigerian authorities of inflicting “brutal wounds” on the Sheikh and his wife while in detention, and his supporters have protested for months calling for his release.
Who is Sheikh Zakzaky?
Born in 1953 in Kaduna State, northern Nigeria, Sheikh Zakzaky founded IMN in his youth and is largely credited for the growth of Shia Islam in Nigeria.
The community was virtually non-existent 30 years ago but is now estimated to include somewhere between 5 and 17% of Nigeria’s 100 million people.
Sheikh Zakzaky converted to Shia Islam about four decades ago after visiting Iran. He was heavily influenced by the Iranian revolution in 1979 which saw Ayatollah Khomeini take power from the US-backed Shah.
The Iranian revolution encouraged him to believe that an Islamic revival was also possible in Nigeria.
Sheikh Zakzaky was a political prisoner for nine years during the 1980s and 1990s, accused by successive military regimes of civil disobedience.
In 2015, he was among hundreds of people arrested after security forces stormed the IMN’s headquarters and killed about 350 people.
The army said at the time that it was protecting its chief of staff and his convoy who it says were attacked by IMN supporters.
Why was the IMN banned?
The group was banned in July after months of protests which saw violent clashes between protesters and the security forces – including one outside the federal parliament building. Several people were killed, including a senior police officer and a journalist.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said the group had been “taken over by extremists who didn’t believe in peaceful protests and instead employed violence”.
Human rights groups condemned the police’s violent response to the protests.
Why is the group controversial?
IMN supporters do not recognise the Nigerian government and see Sheikh Zakzaky as the only legitimate source of authority in the country.
They see President Buhari – a Sunni Muslim – as a pawn of Saudi Arabia, who they say wants to eliminate them.
They pledge allegiance to Ayatollah Khomeini at their gatherings and critics have raised concern over the group’s close ties to Iran.
Sheikh Zakzaky has denied his movement, which runs hospitals and schools in some states in northern Nigeria, gets any funding from Iran.