Nigeria: International condemnation of recent extreme ‘blasphemy’ sentences

Originally published in CSW.org.uk

A group of 10 UN human rights experts has called on the Nigerian government to overturn the death sentence for blasphemy handed to Yahaya Sharif-Aminu by a Shari’a court in the Hausawa Filin Hockey area of Kano City in Kano state.

Sharif-Aminu, 22, was sentenced to death by hanging on August 10 by the presiding 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.

In the statement, dated September 28, the experts state: “Artistic expression of opinion and beliefs, through songs or other media – including those seen to offend religious sensibilities – is protected in accordance with international law. The criminalisation of these expressions is unlawful,” urging Nigeria to “take effective measures to protect Mr Sharif-Aminu, in detention as well as after his release.”

Earlier this month, Commissioner Frederick A Davie of the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) adopted imprisoned Sharif-Aminu along with detained humanist Mubarak Bala as part of the Commission’s Religious Prisoners of Conscience Project.

In other news, the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland, Dr Piotr Cywinski, has written to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari calling on him to personally pardon 13-year-old Umar Farouk, who was sentenced to ten years in prison with menial labour for blasphemy on the same day as Mr Sharif-Aminu received his sentence. Mr Farouk was found guilty of using foul language against God during an argument with a friend.

In his letter to President Buhari, dated September 25, Dr Cywinski offers to take the place of the child along with 119 volunteers who would each serve a month in prison. Dr Cywinski states: “I cannot remain indifferent to this disgraceful sentence for humanity… Regardless of what he said, [Farouk] cannot be treated as fully aware and responsible, given his age. He should not be subjected to the loss of the entirety of his youth, be deprived of opportunities, and stigmatised physically, emotionally, and educationally for the rest of his life.”

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 and echoes continued calls for the release of Yahaya Sharif-Aminu and Umar Farouk, neither of whom should be imprisoned. Nigeria’s blasphemy law is entirely incompatible with the country’s national and international obligations. It is also a driver of religious extremism, an issue which the country must address as a matter of urgency.”

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