Lagos: An alleged Iranian Revolutionary Guard member went on trial on Wednesday over weapons sent from Iran and seized in Nigeria, a case that has led to a probe of whether Tehran breached UN sanctions.
Azim Aghajani and Nigerian suspect Ali Abbas Jega, who were both in the dock as the trial began, have pleaded not guilty to three charges of importing 13 containers of weapons and falsely declaring them as building materials.
The arms shipment has drawn international attention because it could constitute a violation of UN sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme. It has also sparked diplomatic tensions between West African nations and Iran.
After Wednesday`s brief court session, Aghanjani`s lawyer told journalists his client was not a member of the Revolutionary Guards, the economic and military force in Iran, and was simply a businessman.
Court documents have identified Aghajani as a Revolutionary Guard member and a businessman.
Lawyer Chris Uche also said the arms shipment was a "normal business transaction" between Iran and Gambia, which Tehran says was the final destination for the weapons.
"The man is a genuine businessman," Uche said. "He is a Persian who is fluent in English language, and hence his being contracted. He does not belong to any such organisation," he said, referring to the Revolutionary Guard.
Uche said "the arms were passing through Nigeria and not to Nigeria”.
Gambia has denied it was the intended recipient of the weapons and has cut diplomatic ties with Iran over the dispute.
Senegal also recalled its ambassador to Iran and expressed concern that the weapons could end up in the hands of separatist rebels from the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance, in Senegal`s south, which has bases in Gambia.
Dakar announced last month, however, that it was reinstating its ambassador.
Prosecutors got off to a rocky start as the trial began on Wednesday, with the judge criticising them over a conflict in dates provided for when Nigerian suspect Jega gave a statement to authorities.
Judge Okechukwu Okeke angrily tossed the written statement back at prosecutors over the one-day discrepancy in the day provided in it and the one given by a witness.
"If you mess up the case in your office, do not use the court as a cover," he said. "This is a very serious lapse."
Prosecutors` first witness was an agent from Nigeria`s secret police.
He described how he went to the Iranian embassy on November 13 to "invite" Aghajani to his office for interrogation, days after going to Jega`s office for the same purpose.
The arms, including rockets and grenades, were seized at a dock in Lagos in October. Iran`s ambassador to Nigeria has said their final destination was Gambia and that they were being shipped as part of a deal between those two nations.
Iran is under four sets of sanctions over its nuclear programme, including a ban on arms sales, and Nigeria has reported the seizure to the UN Security Council.
A UN panel of experts on sanctions on Iran was recently in Nigeria to investigate the weapons shipment.
Two officials from the Iranian embassy attended the start of the trial, which took place under tight security, with dozens of armed policemen around the court and a bomb disposal team positioned inside.
The trial is to resume on Thursday.