Shia Muslim leader Ibrahim Zakzaky and his wife, who have been held in Nigeria for murder since 2015, were fired on Wednesday, lawyers said.
The prominent cleric has been at odds with secular authorities for years over his calls for an Iranian-style Islamic revolution in Nigeria, where Shias are a small minority.
Zakzaky, his wife Zeenah Ibrahim and 200 of their followers were arrested during a violent crackdown in the northern city of Zaria.
A court ordered the couple’s release in 2016, but authorities ignored the demand and filed charges against the cleric, including the murder of a soldier.
“None of the 15 witnesses to the prosecution has proven that they committed the crime,” lawyer Sadau Garba told AFP after Wednesday’s hearing, adding that the couple had been acquitted and “regained their freedom today”.
Chief prosecutor Dari Bayero confirmed the couple had been released, but said the state plans to appeal.
“The court ruled that none of the witnesses we presented in court provided convincing evidence that the duo was guilty,” Bayero said.
“This doesn’t mean they can’t be charged again…we’re definitely going to appeal against the duo.”
Amnesty International urged the Nigerian authorities to “immediately comply” with the court order.
“If the government again willfully ignores the orders of its own courts, it will display a blatant – and dangerous – disregard for the rule of law,” the rights group said in a statement.
Troops carried out a brutal crackdown on Zakzaky’s group, the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), in December 2015, when members blocked the army’s chief of staff convoy during a religious procession.
Rights groups said at the time that some 350 IMN members were killed during two days of clashes and later buried in mass graves.
The army initially denied the events, saying a soldier had been killed by armed Shiites.
Zakzaky’s continued detention has sparked street protests in the capital Abuja, sparking violent clashes with security forces that have claimed dozens of lives.
The Nigerian government officially banned the group in 2019.
That same year, 100 of the detained members in two groups were released after a court acquitted them.
And in February last year, another court released 87 other IMN members for lack of evidence.
After announcing Zakzaky’s release, his lawyer said the cleric and his wife “need to go home now, get some rest and attend to their urgent medical needs.”
But he added that they will “claim damages from the Kaduna state government for all the hardships and tribulations our client has suffered.”
An IMN spokesman, Ibrahim Musa, said the court’s decision was “a victory for truth and justice against tyranny and impunity”.
“The false charges made against them have finally been pierced for good after nearly five years of excruciating illegal detention,” Musa said.
“This verdict has not only vindicated them and all members of the Islamic movement in Nigeria, but it is certainly a victory for perseverance in the face of the extreme persecution by the Nigerian government.”