As Christians Face Death Sentences, Nigerian Court Can and Should Overturn Its Dangerous Blasphemy Law
BY: PAUL COLEMAN | DECEMBER 23, 2022
The United States Department of State has just issued its annual watchlist of the world’s worst religious freedom offenders, and strikingly, Nigeria did not make the cut. The country is among the most dangerous in the world to be a Christian, and daily we hear news of abuses imperiling the human rights of all Nigerians. In breaking news: Since at least 2013, the Nigerian military has conducted systematic, wide-scale forced abortions on at least 10,000 women and girls, many of which were kidnapped and raped by Islamist militants.
Yet in spite of clear-cut evidence of mass human rights atrocities, the U.S. government remains silent, failing to designate Nigeria as a “country of particular concern.” Between January 2021 and March 2022, more than 6,000 Christians were targeted and killed in Nigeria. In May of this year, Christian student Deborah Yakubu was stoned to death and her body burned in Sokoto State, Nigeria, after classmates deemed her WhatsApp messages blasphemous. Following this tragedy, Rhoda Ya’u Jatau, a Christian woman from the northeast, is now on trial for blasphemy for sharing a WhatsApp message condemning Deborah’s brutal killing. And earlier this year, humanist Mubarak Bala was sentenced to 24 years in prison for social media posts critical of Islam.
What will it take to break the Biden administration’s silence? Now, Nigeria is garnering international attention as a result of an upcoming case at its Supreme Court challenging a law criminalizing so-called “blasphemous” expression. You can be put to death under Nigerian law for this “crime.” Musician Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, currently imprisoned and facing the death penalty for blasphemy charges, has petitioned the court to protect his fundamental human rights after being convicted under the Sharia Penal Code of Kano State.
In March 2020, Yahaya shared song lyrics via WhatsApp. This simple act would forever change his life. Accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad for what he shared, his house was burned to the ground by a mob, and he was arrested and charged with blasphemy. Without the support of a lawyer, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced by a local Sharia judge to death by hanging.
Innocent of any crime, Yahaya filed his notice of appeal in November at the Supreme Court, and this potential landmark case could abolish once and for all Northern Nigeria’s Sharia blasphemy law.
Twenty years ago, the 12 states in Northern Nigeria introduced Sharia into their criminal law codes, despite the Nigerian Constitution’s protections for religious freedom. These laws are only supposed to apply to Muslims, but leave little room for theological diversity among Muslims, and could potentially be applied to converts to Christianity or those who have left Islam. It is imperative that the Supreme Court bring justice to Yahaya, saving his life and offering much-needed legal clarity to end the horror of blasphemy laws for all in Nigeria.
International law, including the international treaties to which Nigeria is bound as a party, is unambiguous — the right to religious freedom is for everyone, and nobody should be punished, much less killed, for what they believe. Moreover, Nigeria’s own constitution protects Yahaya’s rights to free expression and religious freedom. Any person of faith or no faith at all can be penalized, and even killed, as a result of a blasphemy accusation. In a country of more than 200 million, split nearly evenly between Christians and Muslims, it is clear that all Nigerians stand to lose under the blasphemy regime.
Blasphemy laws are not unique to Nigeria. Approximately 40 percent of countries in the world have blasphemy laws in some form, and there are currently at least seven countries where a conviction for blasphemy can result in the death penalty. Nigeria has before it a crucial opportunity to step out as an international leader, serving as a model for the abolishment of these dangerous laws.
The world awaits justice for Yahaya. Last week, the U.K. prime minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, Fiona Bruce, urged “the international human rights community to speak out on behalf of Sharif-Aminu and for Nigeria to repeal its blasphemy laws.” As he fights for his life, let us remember that this is a fight for the human rights of all Nigerians, and stand with him in advocating for the rights of all people to express themselves without fear.