Commissioner Frederick A. Davie of the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has adopted imprisoned Nigerians Mubarak Bala and Yahaya Sharif-Aminu as part of the Commission’s Religious Prisoners of Conscience Project.
USCIRF’s Religious Prisoners of Conscience Project highlights individuals who have been imprisoned, detained, disappeared or placed under house arrest on account of their religion or belief. As part of the project, USCIRF Commissioners commit to consistent advocacy on behalf of those adopted under the scheme.
Mr Bala, 35, a chemical engineer and President of the Nigerian Humanist Association, was arrested at his home in Kaduna state on 28 March for allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed in Facebook posts. His arrest followed a petition to the Kano State Police Commissioner on 27 March 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 young son.
Mr Sharif-Aminu, 22, was sentenced to death by hanging by presiding Khadi (Judge) Aliyu Muhammad Kani on 10 August. He was 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. On the same day, 13-year-old Umar Farouk was found guilty of committing blasphemy during an argument with a friend and sentenced to ten years imprisonment with menial labour. In a recent statement UNICEF condemned the sentence as negating “all core underlying principles of child rights and child justice that Nigeria – and by implication, Kano State, has signed on to.”
In a press release announcing the adoptions, USCIRF Commissioner Davie said: “There is absolutely no reason why Mubarak Bala should continue to be held in detention without charge, seemingly for nothing more than exercising his right to freedom of belief and expression… the Nigerian government must take all steps necessary to confirm his whereabouts and safety, and ensure that he is afforded a fair trial in a secular court. If his only alleged crime is blasphemy, he must immediately be released and allowed to return home to his family.” Commissioner Davie added: “Sharif-Aminu’s blasphemy conviction and death sentence are a violation of international human rights law and Article 38 of the Nigerian Constitution. Authorities must overturn this sentence and ensure that Sharif-Aminu’s right to religious freedom is protected.”
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 a 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.
CSW’s Founder President Mervyn Thomas said: “CSW welcomes the decision by USCIRF Commissioner Frederick A Davie to adopt Mubarak Bala and Yahaya Sharif-Aminu as part of the Religious Prisoner’s of Conscience Project. Neither of these men should be imprisoned. Blasphemy laws feed and sustain religious extremism and are therefore wholly incompatible with Nigeria’s obligations under international law. These laws must be repealed, and we call for the immediate and unconditional release of all those detained on highly subjective blasphemy charges.”