Three Israelis who were arrested in Nigeria and held for nearly three weeks landed in Israel Thursday morning, the Times of Israel reported.
Rudy Rochman, Noam Leibman and Israeli journalist E. David Benaym were arrested on July 9 by Nigerian secret police on suspicion of being in contact with Biafran separatists in the southern region 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 on Thursday.
“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 said that Israel’s envoy in Nigeria worked alongside the French and American Embassies to free the men. Benaym had a French passport, and the other two also held American passports.
Chabad of Abuja provided them with kosher food throughout.
The men were released on Tuesday and handed over to U.S. custody. They flew to Istanbul on Wednesday, and from there to Israel. Kreiman was by their side until they boarded the plane out of Abuja.
The trio were in Africa doing research into the Igbo community of Nigeria. The Igbo are an ethnic group that make up the majority in the southeastern section of the country, several thousand of whom consider themselves to be Jewish and observe mitzvos and the Yamim Tovim. As they do not have a significant mesorah, they are not considered Jewish by most authorities, but a small community has made aliyah and converted through the Chief Rabbinate.
Their families said the men had their social media posts of them gifting a sefer Torah to a local leader used against them by the separatists, who alleged they were visiting the area as a gesture of support.
“The filmmaking crew thought it would be a nice gesture to bring several gifts with cultural symbolism to the communities it planned to visit,” the families said in their statement. “Unfortunately, members of non-state political groups have hijacked for their own purposes images of the filmmakers gifting a Torah to a local community.”
In a statement released on social media, the men said they had been cleared of wrongdoings by the authorities but instructed to leave immediately. They also alleged they were mistreated while in prison.
“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.