Zainab Aliyu, 22, is a lucky young lady. She was accused of – and arrested for – smuggling packages of Tramadol into Saudi Arabia, an offence which carries a penalty of death sentence over there. However, after a thorough investigation by Nigerian and Saudi authorities, and a long-drawn drama in the media, she was exonerated, as the drugs were planted in luggage that was not hers but tagged in her name. She returned to Nigeria last Monday, after four months in jail. Here, she shares her experience with Daily Trust Saturday. Excerpts:
Daily Trust: You were arrested on the 26th of December 2018, and detained for four months by Saudi authorities, over allegations of drug trafficking. You have since been exonerated after a long-drawn drama, so can you share with us the events that unfolded that fateful day?
Zainab Aliyu: My mother, my sister Hajara, and myself, we were sleeping in our hotel room, when suddenly some Arabs and two black men forcefully entered. They woke us up, all of us, and started asking questions about a consignment of drugs which they said we had illegally brought into the Holy Land from Nigeria. We asked what drugs, and they said we left them at the Jeddah Airport. Of course, we all denied the allegations, and told them that we had not left any luggage at Jeddah. So, after they realized that we didn’t know anything about what they were asking us about, they searched my bag, and the entire room, but they could not find anything incriminating. They told my mother that they were taking me to their office for further investigation because the consignment of drugs they found was bearing my name, and therefore I must follow them to their office to answer some questions.
I began to cry, out of a mix of fear and confusion, and my mother and sister also started crying because we all knew that we did not travel with any prohibited item into the country, not to talk of drugs. After we left the hotel, I realized that I was not the only person arrested, because I met Malam Ibrahim Abubakar, who was also arrested for the same allegation.
Apparently, they arrested him first, then me. But we were taken to the office together. So, when we arrived at their office in Madinah, they gave us some forms and asked us to fill, which we did. After that, we were kept in the office until the next day.
DT: Did you communicate with your mother after you arrived at the security office?
Zainab: No, they seized my phone, so there was no way I could communicate with my mother. In fact, at that time I was confused because I was not even myself Wallahi. I was just crying and thinking of what might happen to me, or where I would be taken to. I was completely confused. So, the next day, we were taken to Jeddah, like the security agents said, for further investigation. Again, we were given papers and directed to fill, and we did. They also snapped several photos of me, before I was taken to a female prison, while Baba Ibrahim Abubakar was taken to the male prison.
I was taken to the prison located outside Jeddah, around 12am Saudi time. That’s how we were separated. You know we travelled to Saudi Arabia on the same airplane and we were arrested same day for the same allegation, even though we stayed in different hotels. When we met, he asked me about my own situation, and I told him. He then told me about his own case, and from there we realized that we were facing a similar problem. Since then, we continued communicating, even though some of the security agents warned him to stop talking to me.
DT: Were you informed that you would be taken to jail?
Zainab: No, nobody told me where I was to be taken to, and even after I was taken there, I never imagined that it was a prison, because deep inside my heart, I knew I did not commit any offense that would warrant such punishment. But after some time, I realized that I was actually taken to prison. So, I was given a room, and we were four in it. In fact, it is after I got there that one of my roommates helped me with her cell phone with which I called my mother.
DT: Can you describe the room?
Zainab: All I can say is that it was a room with mattresses and blankets. But not everyone had a pillow. Some did, and others didn’t. But Wallahi, I spent almost one week without knowing that I was in a prison, because I did not commit any offence.
We were being fed well, but it was not like home at all. Honestly, I was not able to eat real food at the first instance, but later I started. Initially, I was taking only water and juice which the prison officials provide us. Later, I began to eat, because there was no way I could survive without it. Also, with the counselling that I had been receiving from my parents, I got the courage to continue with my life there.
DT: Can you recall some details of your first day in prison?
Zainab: Yes. I met several people. But I can assure you, it took me some days before I could trust some of the inmates. That’s because after realizing that I was actually framed, I couldn’t bring myself to trust anyone. I did not trust anybody there, even among my roommates. The only person that I can say I trusted, is one Ethiopian lady with whom I was brought in.
DT: Was there any harassment or ill-treatment from the prison officials?
Zainab: There was nothing like that. They treated us like human beings. Nobody humiliated or harassed anyone in there. And I spent 124 days there.
DT: Did any official from the Nigerian Embassy visit you then?
Zainab: Yes. After I spent three weeks there, some officials visited us and they gave us assurance that they would do everything to ensure that we were released. But since then, nobody visited us again. They only returned to the prison the very day I was released.
DT: After you settled down in the prison, did the prison officials allow you to talk to your family?
Zainab: Yes. There was a telephone line in the prison which we were allowed to use to call our family members for only 10 to 15 minutes. I was first allowed to talk to my mother after I spent two days in prison. Like I said earlier, I used my roommate’s cell phone to call my mother, but subsequently, I used the public line provided to us by the Saudi authorities.
The first time I used the public phone, I was only able to call my father, who was in Nigeria, because it’s only his phone number that I was able to recall. Then after we spoke, he gave me the phone numbers of my mother and my sister.
DT: How would you describe life in prison?
Zainab: Honestly, it was terrible, because you don’t have rights. You are restricted from doing so many things. You’re always thinking of your future. You have no certainty of your condition, whether you are going to be freed or not. You don’t even know your fate. So, it is a kind of life that cannot be explained; it is only when you taste it that you will understand.
What shocked me the first day I entered the prison was that the inmates told me that if I was found guilty of the offence I was accused of, my punishment was death. So, understandably, I was devastated. But because my parents were always counselling me, I dedicated myself to prayers.
DT: Did you make any friends in prison?
Zainab: Yes, but only the Ethiopian lady I mentioned earlier, called Rehisty. When we were brought there, together, we found it difficult to communicate, because she could only understand a little English, and I understand only a little Arabic. So, it took us some time before we started communicating, in Arabic, which I picked up while in detention.
I learnt pure Arabic. I also joined Tahfiuz school, and Alhamdulillah, I was able to memorize half of the Holy Qur’an during my stay in the prison. I also learnt how to live with people from different backgrounds.
DT: Were you and Rehisty freed together?
Zainab: No, I left her in the prison, and I don’t know when she is going to be freed. We were only brought in together, and I don’t know whether we faced the same charges or not. I don’t know the level of commitment by her country to free her.
Wallahi, she and I, we cried so much before we departed. We lived like sisters, so when I was going, we shed tears. In fact, it was an unforgettable moment. But there was nothing we could do. So, we met there, and parted there. Our prayer had been to gain freedom together, since we came in together. But Allah, in His infinite wisdom, did not make that happen.
DT: After you found out that you were framed at MAKIA, did you recall any unusual thing that might have transpired at the airport before you took off to Saudi Arabia?
Zainab: Honestly, I did not notice anything unusual on the part of the security agents conducting the screening. In fact, I was sick on the very day we travelled and was not myself, so I did not pay much attention to what other people were doing at that time. I was always near my mother, up till the time we departed.
DT: How did you feel when you got to know that you were going to be freed?
Zainab: Sincerely speaking, I cannot explain how I felt, when I was told that after all the investigation carried out in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, I was found to be innocent of the offence I was earlier accused of. You know, I cannot explain my feelings. Somebody that was to be killed if found guilty, now released because he is innocent. Honestly, I cannot express my feelings.
DT: When you were freed, where were you taken to?
Zainab: I was first taken to the residence of the Nigerian Ambassador, where I spent only three days, and then moved to the residence of the NIA officials, and spent almost a week. After we started preparing to return to Nigeria, I went back to the Ambassador’s residence.
DT: How did it feel when you first saw your parents at MAKIA, upon returning to Nigeria?
Zainab: I cannot explain that. My entire family broke into tears of joy. Alhamdulillah, I am short of words to express my happiness that very day.
DT: While in detention, did you ever think you would be exonerated, and regain your freedom?
Zainab: Well, sometimes I did, that one day, I was going to be out of the situation. But sometimes, I did give up. However, anytime I spoke with my family, they gave me the courage that yes, one day, I would certainly regain freedom. My father always told me that I should leave everything to Allah, and that whatever condition I found myself in, Allah has the power to take me out of it. He always told me to have faith in Allah, and that He would surely come to my aid. And Alhamdullilah, here am I today granting you an interview, at home, in my father’s sitting room. Alhamdulillah!
I thank President Muhammadu Buhari, Madam Abike Dabiri, and the Minister of Justice, Justice Malami, and all others who in one way or the other contributed to my release. To my fellow students at Yusuf Maitama Sule University, and other tertiary institutions, who showed real love to me while I was held, I say thank you all.
I am also calling on some people who have created Instagram and Twitter handles, and even a Facebook account in my name, to please stop, because it is not good to deceive people. Honestly, I am not on social media, so the general public should take note.