Exclusive: Suhaila Ibraheem el-Zakzaky, exiled daughter of jailed Shi’ite leader in Nigeria Sheikh el-Zakzaky says in first major interview she’s hopeful after US designates father ‘political prisoner’

The U.S. State Department designated Sheikh Ibrahim el-Zakzaky, the leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), and his spouse, as the only “political prisoners and detainees” in the Nigeria 2020 Country Report on Human Rights published this month. IMN a is popular religious movement in northern Nigeria with close ties to Iran.

Although the language used in the report seemed to be cautious, the Biden administration acknowledged that the IMN leader is a political prisoner being illegally detained by the government of President Muhammadu Buhari. Mr. Buhari’s brand of Islam aligns with that of Saudi Arabia, and he has made many trips there since he was elected President of Nigeria in 2015.

Many have said the detention of Zakzaky, for six years now, and the attempt to destroy IMN in Nigeria was a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the heart of Africa’s most populous country.

The designation by the Biden administration marked a stark contrast from the Trump administration’s stance on the situation which was to ignore Zakzaky’s human rights violations because President Trump and previous senior former officials did not want anything to do with Iran.

The report’s timing and the Sheikh’s next court hearing are not surprising based on President Biden’s desire to save the Iran Nuclear Deal, with time running out, making the Sheikh a possible bargaining chip. 

The U.S. State Department report also noted that the Sheikh Zakzaky, detained since 2015, was formally charged but stopped short of explaining that he had been held for years without charges and due process. “In 2018, the Kaduna State government charged Zakzaky in state court with multiple felonies stemming from the death of a soldier at Zaria,” reported the U.S. Department of State. 

Today News Africa’s Senior Correspondent, Kristi Pelzel, spoke to the daughter of the jailed IMN leader, Suhaila Ibraheem el-Zakzaky. She hoped the U.S. report would bring more global awareness to the plight of her father. 

“From the very beginning of my parent’s imprisonment and the initial attack on the Islamic Movement and our home, it has always been politically motivated. It wasn’t purely based on religious differences so, having that acknowledgment is good. I am hoping it will be good as it pertains to people looking into the case. It might help with people’s perception of it.” 

Since taking office, U.S. President Joe Biden vowed to highlight Human Rights abuses but seems to tailor his tone, as evident in his response to Jamal Khashoggi’s killing, a columnist from The Washington Post, and in the cautious tone on Sheikh Ibrahim el-Zakzaky’s detention.  

It’s a clear example of the realities of foreign politics and the balancing act to maintain international partnerships for economic and security purposes. At the same time represent the will of the U.S. majority, which has little tolerance for unlawful detainment, targeted political killings, and a lack of due process. 

For example, the Biden Administration imposed sanctions on dozens of individuals and the private security detail for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the case of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder but stopped short of sanctioning the crown prince. 

Around that same time, in late February, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council, making notable omissions when calling out foreign human rights issues worldwide. 

“We will continue to call out abuses in places like Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Iran. We reiterate our call for the Russian government to immediately and unconditionally release Alexei Navalny, as well as hundreds of other Russian citizens wrongfully detained for exercising their rights. We will speak out for universal values when atrocities are committed in Xinjiang or when fundamental freedoms are undermined in Hong Kong. And we are alarmed by the backsliding of democracy in Burma, which is why our first action upon re-engaging the Council was on this very crisis, ” stated Blinken. 

And I think in the case of Sheikh el-Zakzaky and his wife, the U.S. will most likely stop short of serious interventions but nudge Nigeria to do the “right thing” if all the politically motivated stars line up because it’s important to remember that the IMN is very closely connected to Iran.

Similarly connected is the fact that most of the leader’s family has been killed indiscriminately, but he and his wife have been kept alive in detainment, for what some might say the right moment. 

There is only a finite amount of time in which the U.S. can leverage a gesture to accomplish its foreign policy goal in Iran. And the health of the Sheikh and his wife is getting reportedly worse, limiting the Sheikh as a bargaining chip. 

“They were injured severely since 2015, and they have not received appropriate treatment to this day, and as one can only imagine, it’s only getting worse,” explained the Sheikh’s daughter, Suhailato Today News Africa.  

For Sheikh el- Zakzaky’s daughter, she remains in Iran, unable to return to Nigeria safely, but looks forward to contributing to the movement and seeing her parents again with whom she had a close relationship. 

The next court hearing is in May, and the Islamic Movement Nigeria is cautiously optimistic that Sheikh Ibrahim el-Zakzaky and his wife will be released soon after that hearing. 

Kristi Pelzel is a Senior White House correspondent for Today News Africa in Washington D.C. Kristi also covers the US Department of State and the United Nations. She holds a master's degree from Georgetown University.

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