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Why Nigeria’s Potential Landmark Case Challenging Its Blasphemy Law Matters

There are at least seven countries in the world where you can be sentenced to death for the “crime” of blasphemy. Currently in Nigeria, Sufi musician Yahaya Sharif-Aminu faces death by hanging for sharing a religious message on popular messaging platform WhatsApp. Now challenging the constitutionality of the blasphemy law in Nigeria’s Supreme Court, Yahaya’s case has the potential to strike down Nigeria’s most draconian blasphemy law once and for all.

Yahaya is a young Sufi Muslim who, in March 2020, committed the “crime” of sharing a post containing song lyrics expressing his religious beliefs. After being accused of blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad, his house was burned down by an angry mob. Yahaya was arrested, charged and, without legal representation, sentenced to death by hanging by a local Shariah judge in Kano State, northwest Nigeria.

Yahaya’s conviction was overturned on appeal, but rather than dismissing the absurd charges against him, the appeals courts ordered that he be retried, a decision that will almost certainly result in a new conviction and the reimposition of his conviction. to death previously pronounced. .

Resolved in his innocence, Yahaya has now taken his case to the Supreme Court of Nigeria, arguing that the blasphemy law under the Kano State Sharia penal code directly violates both Nigeria’s own constitution and binding international human rights treaties. His legal arguments are set out in the notice of appeal he filed on November 9.

Nigerian human rights defenders have been waiting 22 years for the opportunity to take this potentially historic case to the Nigerian Supreme Court. Yahaya’s challenge will mark the first time the constitutionality of blasphemy has been taken up by the nation’s top judges.

Although blasphemy laws are not unique to Nigeria, all eyes are on the country given the potential global impact of this case. About 40% of the countries in the world have some form of blasphemy law. The Nigerian Supreme Court has an opportunity before it to take a momentous stand against one of the most regressive blasphemy laws – punishable by hanging – and to unreservedly defend the freedom of expression and freedom of religion inherent in any nobody.

This photo taken on May 5, 2016 shows a broken cross outside the Christ Holy Church International in Nimbo, southeastern Nigeria, where nomadic Fulani herders attacked villagers and set buildings and vehicles on fire.
STEFAN HEUNIS/AFP via Getty Images

With his very life at stake, Yahaya has been catapulted to the forefront of the fight against Nigeria’s blasphemy laws, but his story is far from an isolated incident. The criminalization of blasphemy has perilous repercussions for Nigerian society. In a country of more than 200 million people, split almost evenly between Christians and Muslims, these laws are a major source of conflict. As in all countries where such laws are enforced, the criminalization of blasphemy punishes the innocent for expressing their beliefs, prevents minorities from sharing their faith, and perpetuates large-scale societal violence.

Yahaya’s call comes just as voices are rising for the United States to reinstate Nigeria as a ‘politically concerned country’ on the State Department’s list of the world’s worst religious freedom violators. . The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is “appalled” that the US government recently removed Nigeria from this list, calling it “inexplicable” in light of the escalating violence in the country. Between January 2021 and March 2022 alone, more than 6,000 Christians have been targeted and killed in Nigeria.

In May 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 from the north, is now on trial for blasphemy for sharing a WhatsApp message condemning the brutal murder of Deborah. And earlier this year, humanist Mubarak Bala was sentenced to 24 years in prison for posting a criticism of Islam on social media.

In Nigeria, anyone of faith or no faith can face charges and criminal penalties for blasphemy. As long as these laws exist and are enforced, the true peace and progress of Nigeria will be severely hampered. If the country is to respect its own Constitution and its commitments under international human rights law, the Court has no choice but to unequivocally strike down the harsh blasphemy laws in the northern states, making it clear that Yahaya has committed no crime.

By overturning the country’s blasphemy laws, Nigeria would take a critical step towards reconciliation in a country plagued by religious tensions and pave the way for other countries to do the same. Blasphemy laws create a climate of censorship, fear and violence and are ultimately incompatible with human rights. Everyone has the right to express their opinions and, in a free society, everyone should be able to express their beliefs without fear. Now is the time for human rights defenders around the world to stand with Yahaya as he fights not just for his own life but for the rights of all Nigerians.

Kelsey Zorzi is Director of Global Religious Freedom Advocacy at ADF International, which is supporting Yahaya Sharif-Aminu’s case in the Supreme Court of Nigeria. Find her on Twitter at @KelseyZorzi.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.


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