Israeli filmmakers arrive home after 20 days in Nigerian prison

Lapid thanks his staff, Nigerian authorities for working to free trio suspected of contact with Biafran separatists, says Israel worked with French, US embassies to secure release

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Three Israeli filmmakers held in Nigeria for 20 days prepare to board a flight from Abuja to Istanbul on their way home, July 28, 2021. From L-R, Andrew Leibman, Rudy Rochman, Deputy Ambassador Yotam Kreiman, David Benaim (Israel Embassy in Nigeria)
Three Israeli filmmakers held in Nigeria for 20 days prepare to board a flight from Abuja to Istanbul on their way home, July 28, 2021. From L-R, Andrew Leibman, Rudy Rochman, Deputy Ambassador Yotam Kreiman, David Benaim (Israel Embassy in Nigeria)

Three Israeli filmmakers who were imprisoned in Nigeria for nearly three weeks landed back in Israel Thursday morning, after they were released two days earlier.

They had been arrested in a synagogue on July 9 by masked agents of Nigeria’s internal security agency, the Department of State Services, on suspicion of contact with Biafran separatists in the southeast of the country.

“I am very happy that Rudy, Andrew and David were freed from detention in Nigeria and returned to Israel this morning,” said Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in a statement released shortly after the three landed.

“My thanks to the staff of the Foreign Ministry, the Consular Department, and especially to the Nigerian authorities and the deputy ambassador in Nigeria, Yotam Kreiman, on their unceasing efforts to help secure their release,” he said.

Lapid stressed that Israel’s envoy had worked daily with the French and US embassies in the country on the issue, and noted that the local Chabad center provided the three men with kosher food.

One of the men entered Nigeria on a French passport, and the other two used their American passports.

Nigerian authorities released the trio from prison Tuesday evening and handed them over to US custody. American embassy staff then took them to the local Chabad center to spend the night.

The three were given their passports and phones just before their flight took off for Istanbul Wednesday night.

Three Israeli filmmakers held in Nigeria for 20 days on their flight from Abuja to Istanbul before boarding a plane for Israel, July 28, 2021 (courtesy)

Kreiman accompanied them from their release until they boarded their flight.

Rudy Rochman, a pro-Israel activist with almost 95,000 followers on Instagram, filmmaker Andrew Noam Leibman, and French-Israeli journalist Edouard David Benaym were in Nigeria to film “We Were Never Lost,”  a documentary exploring Jewish communities in African countries such as Kenya, Madagascar, Uganda and Nigeria. They were focusing on the Igbo Jewish community in Nigeria.

In a statement published on Instagram Wednesday night, the trio said that they were “wrongfully taken on Friday July 9th, 2021 at 7:30 AM (Nigerian time) to the local DSS facility in Anambra State, Nigeria where they were held for 24 hours before being transported to the DSS headquarters in Abuja, 9 hours away with dangerous trasport [sic].”

The men said they had been taken into custody at gunpoint by over a dozen DSS men wearing black ski masks.

“Rudy, Noam, and David were caged and held for 20 days in horrendous conditions, locked into a small cell, sleeping on the floor with no access to showers or clean clothes. They were interrogated and mistreated without ever officially being arrested or accused of anything,” the statement read.

The three men said in their statement that they had been officially cleared of all wrongdoing, but were instructed by the Nigerian government to leave the country immediately.

They promised to find another way to tell the story of Igbo Jewish life.

From L-R, Andrew Leibman, Rudy Rochman, Abuja Chabad Rabbi Mendy Sternbach, Gabbi Kreinman; Acting Israeli Ambassador to Nigeria Yotam Kreinman David Benaym eat dinner at Chabad-Lubavitch of Abuja, Nigeria on July 28, 2021, after Leibman, Rochman and Benaym were released from detention. (Courtesy)

The families of the three Israelis had said that local political elements had “twisted” the gifting of a Torah scroll to a local community to claim it constituted support for separatist political ambitions. The Torah scroll is currently with the local community.

The men landed in Nigeria on July 6. According to locals, the crew was detained at a synagogue during services in the Igbo village of Ogidi. The Igbo consider themselves a lost tribe of Israel. The filmmakers were aware of the political sensitivity surrounding the filming of the Igbo community, noting on their documentary’s Facebook page: “We do not take any position on political movements as we are not here as politicians nor as a part of any governmental delegations.”

The documentary series planned by the trio was “designed to educate viewers about the religious and cultural experiences of lesser-known Jewish communities. Their goal is to interview members of Jewish communities across multiple African countries, along with Jewish communities in China, India, Afghanistan and elsewhere,” their families said after the arrest.

Igbo mother and child. (photo credit: Shai Afsai/Times of Israel)

In January, a conflict broke out in southeastern Nigeria between Nigerian forces and the military wing of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) movement. The fight is ongoing.

A previous unilateral declaration of independence by the Igbo people in 1967 sparked a brutal 30-month civil war that left more than a million people dead.

AFP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report. 

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