NIAMEY - The top court in Niger has given the green light for the arrest of the country's parliamentary leader, who is accused of involvement in an international baby-trafficking network, it was announced on Friday.
Hama Amadou, who is seen as the leading challenger to President Mahamadou Issoufou ahead of elections in 2016, "discreetly" left the country last week and is currently in Belgium.
He says the charges that he was involved in the trafficking of babies born in Nigeria are politically motivated and a breach of his parliamentary immunity.
But the Constitutional Court ruled on Thursday that the political bureau of parliament, which has spearheaded efforts to investigate Amadou, was "competent" to authorise his arrest. The ruling was announced on Friday.
"If the court confirms the legal character of this authorisation, the judge will summon Hama Amadou," said public prosecutor Boukary Sally Ibrahim late last month.
"If he finds that he is not present, he will issue a warrant," which could lead to an international arrest warrant, Ibrahim said.
Seventeen people, 12 of them women, were arrested in late June for their suspected involvement in a baby-trafficking ring between Nigeria, Benin and Niger.
One of Amadou's wives is among the 17 people. Agriculture Minister Abdou Labo was also remanded in custody in late August in the politically charged probe.
The alleged crime involves forging and altering birth certificates to switch the names of mothers.
"The trafficking network is used primarily by couples who are unable to have children," a source close to the case told AFP earlier this year.
"Baby factories" - private clinics where young girls sell their newborns to couples who are unable to conceive - are regularly uncovered in Nigeria.
Cases in which mothers give up babies born from rape have been reported at such clinics, but young women facing unwanted pregnancies are more common, according to the Nigerian authorities.
The newborns are sold for several thousand euros - with boys fetching more than girls. The mothers receive around 150 euros (S$244).
The impoverished country of Niger has the highest birth rate in the world, an average of 7.6 children per woman.
In 2012, Niger police uncovered a fake orphanage where babies were sold on, some for use in black magic rituals.