LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — An Iranian and his Nigerian accomplice were sentenced to five years in prison Monday over a plot they orchestrated to smuggle a shipment of military-grade weapons including mortar rounds into West Africa.
Both Azim Aghajani and his accomplice, Usman Abbas Jega, pleaded for leniency in the hearing, in which Justice Okechukwu J. Okeke avoided giving the men a maximum sentence of life in prison. The two men already have served more than two years in prison waiting for trial, time which will count toward their release.
The case began when security forces broke open 13 containers at Lagos' busy Apapa Port in October 2010 and found the weapons, sparking an international outcry as Iran is barred by the United Nations from shipping arms abroad. The cache, hidden under tiles in a shipment labeled as containing construction equipment, included 107 mm artillery rockets, rifle rounds and other weapons.
The shipment was bound for Gambia in West Africa, said authorities. Nigerian officials initially claimed the weapons were intended to be used by politicians in the country's 2011 elections, though Israeli officials also at one point suggested they could be bound for the Gaza Strip.
Nigerian authorities later arrested Aghajani and Jega, ultimately filing a five-count indictment against them for smuggling the weapons into the country and falsifying shipping documents. At a hearing Monday, Okeke dismissed one of the charges, but found the men guilty of the other four.
While Okeke acknowledged that he sympathized with Jega, whom he described as "trying to help his friend and make some money," the judge said he had "no doubt" about the other charges. However, Okeke did not apply the maximum sentence in the case. That's after he criticized the state's case from the bench, including once shouting at an agent of Nigeria's domestic spy agency for submitting documents showing Jega only waived his rights a day after allegedly making a confession to its agents.
Prosecutor O.O. Fatunde declined to say what she thought of the verdict after the hearing. Defense lawyer Chris Uche, who represented Aghajani, said prosecutors failed to prove their case and promised to appeal the ruling.
"I strongly feel that a lot of pressure from the international community has influenced the way this case has gone on," Uche told journalists after the ruling.
Iranian diplomats attended Monday's hearing, but declined to comment. Both the United Nations and the United States government have linked Aghajani to Iran's hardline Quds Force through Behineh Trading Co., which organized the arms shipment found in Nigeria. The Quds Force, part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, is an elite and secretive unit that serves as the defenders of Iran's ruling clerics and helps maintain their hold on power. It also acts against foreign powers.
The sentencing comes as Iran's actions across the African continent draws increasing scrutiny. On May 6, a Kenyan court sentenced two Iranian nationals convicted of plotting attacks against Western targets to life in prison. Kenyan anti-terrorism officials have said both of them served in the Quds Force.
In February, Nigerian authorities said they broke up a terrorist group backed by "Iranian handlers" that allegedly gathered intelligence about locations frequented by Americans and Israelis while asking for a list of high-level targets to assassinate. Iran later denied the accusation as a "fabrication." It's unclear where the three men arrested by Nigeria's State Security Service, the nation's domestic spy agency, are today.
Despite the high-profile case, Iran maintains regular diplomatic relations with Nigeria. Its Radio Tehran service broadcasts a Hausa-language service, the main language of Nigeria's predominantly Muslim north. Iran also offers direct and indirect support to Nigeria's Shiite minority.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.