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Nigeria releases local Jewish leader who was arrested with Israeli filmmakers

Igbo community’s Lizben Agha, held for a month without charges, is freed almost two weeks after Israeli trio sent home

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Igbo Jewish leader Lizben Agha (courtesy)
Igbo Jewish leader Lizben Agha (courtesy)

A leader of the Igbo Jewish community in southeastern Nigeria was released Saturday after being held by authorities for almost a month, diplomatic sources in Nigeria told the Times of Israel.

Lizben Agha was arrested the same day as three Israeli filmmakers in the Igbo village of Ogidi on July 9 by masked agents of Nigeria’s internal security agency, the Department of State Services. The Israelis, taken at gunpoint in a local synagogue, were suspected of contact with Biafran separatists in the southeast of the country and held for 20 days without access to lawyers and without being formally charged.

The filmmakers stressed that neither they nor Agha had any connection whatsoever to separatists or any political movement.

Agha had been helping the Israelis film an episode on the Igbo Jewish community.

When the Israelis were initially taken for what they were told would be a short interview, Agha asked to join them to mediate with Nigerian authorities. Her insistence on remaining with the trio likely caused her to be arrested as well, one of the filmmakers said.

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. Their July trip was focused on the Igbo community.

Filmmaker Rudy Rochman speaks to Igbo Jewish youths, July 2021 (courtesy)

“Lizben is an innocent, amazing woman,” Rochman told The Times of Israel. “Incredibly strong, powerful, hospitable, proud in her Jewish identity, and was there for us the moment we got there.”

“It’s horrible what happened to her — 29 days in prison. We were there for 20 of those days, so we know what it’s like,” Rochman said.

The three men took a third of the one daily kosher meal that their jailors allowed them to receive from Chabad and gave it to Agha through the prison guards during their captivity.

But Agha was unable to receive kosher food after the Israelis left.

“I spoke with Chabad before we left and convinced them to continue to bring food for her,” said Rochman. “They came three different times and the DSS refused to give her the food.”

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

Rochman said the filmmakers helped raise money for her bail.

The filmmakers said that their local fixer, Priye Amachree, was also arrested about a week ago and is still being held. He is not Igbo.

Amachree has not been granted access to a lawyer or been formally charged, Rochman said.

The men landed in Nigeria on July 6.

In a statement published on Instagram after their release from Nigerian custody on July 27, 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 Igbo consider themselves a lost tribe of Israel. The filmmakers were aware of the political sensitivity surrounding the filming of the 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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