By Camillus Eboh and Felix Onuah
ABUJA (Reuters) - The leader of Nigeria's largest Shi'ite Muslim sect should be released after being held without charge for nearly a year by the country's security agency, a court ruled on Friday.
Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky, leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), has been detained since mid-December 2015 after his followers clashed with the army in the northern city of Zaria. A judicial inquiry in August said 347 IMN members were killed and buried in mass graves after the violence.
IMN members have held rallies calling for his release and religious processions by the sect have been marred by violence, most recently in the northern city of Kano when at least nine people were killed when police opened fire on worshippers. The U.S. expressed concern at the police's actions.
Security analysts have drawn parallels between IMN -- a minority sect in the mainly Sunni Muslim north -- with Boko Haram, the Sunni Muslim jihadist group whose insurgency began in 2009 after security forces killed hundreds of its members and its leader Mohammed Yusuf died in custody.
A judge at the federal court in the capital, Abuja, said the IMN leader should be released.
"The detention of the applicant at Abuja by the respondents since December 14 2014 is illegal and unconstitutional as it violates his fundamental rights to personal liberty," said Justice Gabriel Kolawole.
He said Zakzaky's wife, who has also been detained, should be released too.
The judge rejected the argument by the State Security Service (SSS) that it was holding him for his own protection from locals in his home city of Zaria.
"I have not been shown any incident report or any complaint lodged by residents around the neighborhood that the applicant has become a nuisance," said Kolawole.
The court ruled that the government should pay the IMN leader and his wife a total of 50 million naira ($164,474) in damages.
Minister of Justice Abubakar Malami said the government would need to study a copy of the court's ruling, which it had not yet seen, before reacting to the judgment.
Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation of 180 million inhabitants, has a predominantly Christian south and mainly Sunni Muslim north. Human Rights Watch estimates that IMN has around 3 million members.
The 1980s founders of the Nigerian sect were inspired by the Islamic Revolution in Shi'ite Iran.
($1 = 304.0000 naira)
(Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram; editing by Ralph Boulton)