A Shari’a court in the Hausawa Filin Hockey area of Kano City in Kano state, northern Nigeria, has sentenced a minor to 10 years in prison with menial labour for blasphemy.
Umar Farouk, 13, was found guilty on 10 August of using foul language against God during an argument with a friend. He has been given a month in which to appeal the verdict.
On the same day, singer Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, 22, was sentenced to death by hanging by presiding Khadi (Judge) Aliyu Muhammad Kani, after being found guilty of committing blasphemy in a song he shared on WhatsApp in March, which his accusers claimed elevated Sheikh Ibrahim Nyass, a renowned scholar from the Tijjaniyya Sufi order, above the Prophet Mohammed.
Mr Sharif-Aminu, who did not deny the charges, was also given a month to appeal the sentence. In a statement delivered in Abuja, the Jam’iyyatu Ansariddeen Attijaniyya organisation reportedly disowned him, described his song as blasphemous, and asserted that contrary to reports, the Tijjaniyya and Sheikh Ibrahim Nyass revered the prophet.
In response to the verdict, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) condemned the sentencing, with USCIRF Commissioner Frederick A. Davie stating: “It is unconscionable that Sharif-Aminu is facing a death sentence merely for expressing his beliefs artistically through music.”
While Kano State has long been a flashpoint of inter-religious and intra-religious tensions and violence, allegations of blasphemy regularly result in members of the public in Nigeria’s Shari’a states taking matters into their own hands. For example, as Mr Sharif-Aminu’s song went viral, angry youth attempted to burn down his family home and demanded his arrest. His trial was subsequently held behind closed doors.
In an earlier high-profile case involving Tijjaniyya adherents, on 25 June 2015 the Upper Shari’a Court in Kano State sentenced cleric Abdul Nyass and eight of his followers to death for blasphemy, after he too was accused of stating that Sheikh Ibrahim Nyass was greater than the Prophet Mohammed. In the aftermath of the allegation, thousands of youth burned down the court in the Rijiyar Lemo neighbourhood where the cleric and his followers were due to appear, while others burned down his house in Kano. The convicts were later transported to Abuja.
Additionally, on 2 June 2016 Mrs Bridget Agbahime, a 74-year-old Christian market trader and wife of a retired pastor from Deeper Life Bible Church in Noman’sland, was lynched by a mob in Kofar Wambai market in Kano city following a false accusation of blasphemy. Five suspects arrested in connection with the murder, including the man whose falsehoods incited the violence, were released unconditionally five months after being arrested.
While Nigeria’s constitution guarantees the right to freedom of religion or belief, blasphemy is prohibited under Section 204 of the country’s Criminal Code. In addition, 12 of Nigeria’s 36 states have enacted the Shari’a penal code since 1999, transforming Islam into their state religion in defiance of the federal constitution, and empowering Shari’a courts to hand out such sentences as amputation for theft and execution for crimes such as blasphemy and adultery. According to the BBC, only one of the death sentences passed by Nigeria’s Sharia courts has been carried out since they were reintroduced in 1999.
CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said: “CSW is deeply disturbed by the excessive punishments meted out to Umar Farouk and Mr Sharif-Aminu, and we call for these convictions to be overturned. It is unacceptable that a child could spend 10 of his most vital years in prison because of words uttered carelessly in the heat of an argument with a friend, while a young man may lose his life because others took offence at his song, regardless of whether or not he meant it to be offensive. Accusations of blasphemy are highly subjective; they arouse extreme and visceral reactions, which mitigate against justice and can lead to extrajudicial killings, as occurred in the case of Mrs Agbahime.”
In a separate development, Mubarak Bala, 35, a chemical engineer and President of the Nigerian Humanist Association, who was arrested at his home in Kaduna state on 28 March for allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed in Facebook posts, marked his 100th day in confinement last week. Mr Bala, who has received death threats, was arrested following a petition to the Kano State Police Commissioner on 27 April by a Kano law firm, which alleged his posts were “provocative and annoying to Muslims.”
Since his arrest Mr Bala has been held incommunicado and without charge or access to his lawyer or his wife, with whom he has a five-month-old son. On 6 July Mrs Amina Ahmed issued an open letter to the President of the Nigerian Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives asking for proof her husband was still alive. According to Mrs Bala, her husband’s lawyers were informed that the first available hearing for his case is in October.
In a statement issued on 24 July a group of UN experts called on the Nigerian government to grant Mr Bala’s immediate release, saying: “The arrest and detention of Mr. Bala amounts to persecution of non-believers in Nigeria. We are concerned that he may be prosecuted under anti-blasphemy laws that provide for capital punishment in Nigeria… We are also gravely concerned about Mr. Bala’s safety, while in detention, in light of the death threats against him, and further fear that he may be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment due to his atheistic beliefs.”
In his 2015 study of blasphemy laws in Indonesia, Nigeria and Pakistan, Amjad Mahmood Khan asserted that countries that criminalise blasphemy tend to foster an environment in which terrorism is more prevalent, legitimised and insidious, and concluded that terrorism and blasphemy are inextricably intertwined in these countries.
Mervyn Thomas added: “CSW continues to call for the immediate and unconditional release of Mr Bala, whose ongoing detention is a clear violation of the right to freedom of religion or belief, and for an end to extensive periods of pretrial detention, given the legal presumption of innocence until proven guilty. We urge members of the international community to amplify Mrs Amina Ahmed’s call for proof of her husband’s wellbeing, and to press the Nigerian authorities to expedite justice transparently. The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief has called on countries to repeal blasphemy laws, because they have a ‘stifling impact on the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief, and on the ability to engage in a healthy dialogue about religion.’ Nigeria must therefore be urged to repeal its blasphemy law. It feeds and sustains religious extremism, and is wholly incompatible with the nation’s obligations under international law.”