Zainab Aliu, a Kano State indigene and graduate of English from Maitama Sule University, Kano, was arrested in Saudi Arabia for allegedly being in possession of hard drugs, which were later found to have been smuggled into her luggage at the Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport, Kano.
Following the intervention of the Federal Government, Zainab regained her freedom. Shortly after returning to Nigeria, she tells about her experience in Saudi Arabian prison for 124 days.
You were arrested and detained for 124 days by Saudi Arabian authorities for a drug-related offence. What was your experience in Saudi Arabian prison?
The journey and what transpired was not what I expected. I was always thinking about my family, as well as thinking about how I had no knowledge of it. I was accused of committing an offence I did not commit or even know about. What kept on coming to my mind were questions like, when will I regain my freedom and why am I being charged for an offence I did not commit? I cannot really explain how I felt. It is only when someone goes through that situation that they can experience what I felt when I was in that situation.
How did you feel when the Saudi Arabian security men came to arrest you?
When the policemen walked into our hotel room, I did not know that they were police officers because they had no visible identification that revealed their identities. They told me that I had a luggage and I asked, where is the luggage? They said I left the luggage at the airport. At that moment, my mum and my sister told them that we only had our three pieces of luggage with us, which we showed them. They searched the luggage but found nothing incriminating. They bluntly told us that we had left a bag at their airport. At that moment, I was speechless. I could not utter a word; I was just crying because they were accusing us of something we had no knowledge about. Then they brought out handcuffs and that shocked me. I stopped talking from that moment. I was just crying.
When they eventually took you to their office, were you able to establish contact with your mother?
When they took me out from our hotel room, I had no means of talking to my family.
Based on the accusation, did they tell you that you might go to jail?
No, they did not tell me anything about jail until they took me to the prison. After spending about seven days there, I still could not believe that I was in prison. All I kept thinking about was that at least whoever is taken to prison must have been found guilty. I knew that I was not guilty and had not committed any offence. So, why must they imprison me? For the seven days I was there, I could not believe that I was actually in prison.
While in prison, how were you treated and what was your experience?
I cannot explain it because I was always crying. I was always crying because I missed my family. I would cry and cry until there were no more tears rolling down my cheeks. I was just crying and praying to God. What really kept me strong in the prison were the conversations I had with my parents; they consoled and assured me that everything would soon be okay and that I would soon regain my freedom. They advised me to be praying and that God was with me.
Were you able to make some friends while in prison?
No, I did not (make any friend) because I was not comfortable with the prison inmates as I was scared and could not trust anyone again.
Who was the first person you came in contact with when you were taken to prison?
The first person I met in the prison was an old woman. She gave me her credit card to enable me to use it within the prison complex to call my parents and inform them of my predicament.
So, you were allowed to contact your parents on phone?
There was a standby telephone and inmates were allowed to speak to their parents or relations for a maximum of 10 minutes. The time allowed for that was between 8am and 8pm.
When you were held in prison in Saudi Arabia, was there any time you felt that was the end, or that you wouldn’t get out of here?
I could not explain the feeling within me the very first day. I was detained in a prison for an offence I was convinced I did not commit. I was overwhelmed and felt that I would never get out of there again. But I did not allow negative thoughts to take over, so I resorted to prayers there, believing in Almighty Allah that someday I would be exonerated and regain freedom. While in prison, my only sources of happiness were prayers and my Quran, which made me feel that I was with my family.
What do you think could have been your sentence on conviction if you had not been freed?
Seriously, I had no idea because you would see a lot of people who committed the same offence getting different sentences. So, I did not know what sentence they would have given me. Some detainees were busy discussing and guessing that the sentence might range from 10 to 20 years or be execution.
What was your expectation?
In my mind, I knew I was not going to be executed because I knew nothing about it. I was confident that I was coming back to my country. I intensified my prayers, believing that God would sooner than later, liberate and exonerate me.
Prior to boarding your flight to Saudi Arabia from Kano, what happened at the Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport, Kano?
Nothing went wrong; everything went smoothly. I joined the queue like other Saudi Arabia-bound passengers for checking of our luggage and airport formalities. We were given our boarding passes.
After you regained your freedom, where were you first taken to?
First, I was taken to the home of the Acting Consul-General in Jeddah, where I spent between four and five days. And subsequently, I was moved to the National Intelligence Agency, where I spent about seven days. Thereafter, I was brought back to the house of the Acting Consul-General because of the preparations that had to be made to bring me back to Nigeria.
How were you treated in the Saudi Arabian prison?
A prison is not like a home, so, you will not expect to be treated the way you would be treated at home, in a boarding school, university or hostel. The treatment was entirely different.
What was your immediate reaction when you saw your parents on arrival to Nigeria from Saudi Arabia?
I was overwhelmed with joy; I felt like a born-again person as my parents and entire family burst into tears of joy. The way I felt cannot be explained!
What is your message, particularly to those who facilitated your freedom?
I have no words of appreciation for them, other than to continue to pray to Almighty Allah for their success, as well as for the creator to do for them what they have done for me.
On the other hand, what punishment would you want to be meted out to those who implicated you?
I am calling on the Nigerian authorities to impose appropriate punishment on them that is commensurate to their illegal act. I am not the only one they have implicated. There are a lot of innocent people (they have implicated). To this end, I am calling on the Nigerian authorities to mete out to them the commensurate punishment.
Since you returned from Saudi Arabia, have you had any challenges?
I do not have any challenge; all I can say thanks be to God, thanks be to God, thanks be to God because I have regained my freedom. The only challenge I can talk about has to do with the social media. A lot of people are creating fake accounts in my name, whereas I do not have an account on social media. Some people will just come into our house while exchanging pleasantries with some family members. Some people will be videoing me and sharing it on social media, which is disgusting. They need to seek my permission before posting my videos and pictures on social media. I hate with passion when people come into my home to video me and post it on social media, without my knowledge.
Did you have any health challenges while you were there or have you felt any since you returned?
I was hale and hearty while in Saudi Arabian prison and I’ve been enjoying good health since I returned to the country.
While in prison, did any Nigerian official visit you?
They visited and assured me that by the grace of God, sooner than later, I would be freed because the Nigerian government was working towards securing my release, alongside others, who were guilty and not guilty.
After that experience, are you scared of travelling or flying out of the country?
I am not scared of travelling out of the country.
Do you see the money given to you by the Kano State Government as a worthy compensation for your travails?
Did you nurse any feeling that you would die?
No, certainly not, because I was confident that I would regain my freedom because I did not commit any offence. So, the question of whether I would die or not did not even arise.
Can you recall the first day you walked into the prison?
The first day I was taken into prison, I could not believe that it was a prison because I believe that only bad people are taken to prison after doing something illegal. I knew that I was innocent.
What occupied your time and attention while you were there?
My Quran and my prayer book occupied my time and attention in prison.
Did you witness other inmates being taken out for execution?
Yes, while in prison, I witnessed some inmates being taken out for execution, particularly for drug-related offences. It did not bother me because I knew I was innocent and would not face the hangman.
How many of you were in your prison cell?
We were over 150, and were from different countries of the world. That included over 20 Nigerians. It is a large hall, partitioned into rooms and six people occupy each room. But in my room, we were only four, all females. All the Nigerians in the prison were there over allegations of drug trafficking.
What was your experience like?
It was a very terrible experience and I cannot wish anybody to go through such a situation in their life.
Now that you are free, is there anything that you would like to change about your life?
Since my stay in prison, I was dreaming of establishing a non-governmental organisation in Nigeria, most especially for women. That is the new thing that will happen to my life. – Punch.