A Nigerian man who was accused of blasphemy in April of 2020 has been sentenced to 24 years in jail. For allegedly insulting Islam, something that deserves no punishment whatsoever, the 37-year-old Mubarak Bala could spend the prime years of his life behind bars.
Bala was the president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria when he was first arrested for posting criticism of Islam on his Facebook page. It wasn’t the first time he was punished for nothing. In 2014, his own family placed him in a mental hospital for the “crime” of being an atheist. While he was eventually released, it didn’t stop the threats on his life. He wouldn’t even allow a videographer or photographer from the Associated Press to come to his makeshift home because he feared what could happen to him if anyone found out where he was located.
But then, in 2020, just as things seemed to die down, Bala was arrested again. This time, a group of lawyers claimed Bala had “been writing stuffs on his Facebook page that are provocative and annoying to the Muslims.” Specifically, they said, he insulted Allah, and that would “incite Muslims and provoke them to take law into their hands.” The lawyers were essentially blaming Bala for what reactionary extremists would do as a result of his criticisms. It had all the vibes of blaming an assault victim for what a predator did.
All of this was taking place in Nigeria, by the way, a nation whose Constitution supposedly guarantees freedom of religion and expression. However, that petition was filed in Kano State, one of 36 states in Nigeria, and one of 12 states that are allowed to operate a parallel legal system that permits Sharia law. Why Kano State? That wasn’t obvious since Bala wasn’t there when he made the statements on Facebook. It appeared to be a ploy to make sure he got the harshest possible punishment.
Ironically, the lawyers said the punishment for what Bala was being accused of was imprisonment for up to two years and/or a fine. But if he was found guilty in Kano State, then his alleged blasphemy could be punishable by death. For a long while, it was unclear if Bala had access to a lawyer. It was also unclear what he had been charged with. Hell, it was even unclear if he was alive.
When his lawyers finally got in front of the Kano State High Court last August, we learned what he had been formally charged with: 10 counts of causing a public disturbance… because those Facebook posts were deemed “blasphemous.” While Bala had initially claimed innocence, he later changed his plea to guilty in an effort to seek closure and perhaps receive a lighter sentence.
Yesterday, he finally got that “lenient” sentence. He won’t be executed… but he may spend the bulk of his future behind bars. The court issued a 24-year prison sentence (including the time served so far). It’s a clear-cut case of religious lunacy taken to extremes.
Dr. Leo Igwe, the founder of the Nigerian Humanist Association, said in a statement that this was a shocking turn of events:
‘The Humanist community in Nigeria is utterly shocked by the sentencing of Mubarak Bala for blasphemy. It is utterly disgraceful that a court in this 21st century could convict an individual for making innocuous posts on Facebook.
‘Today is a sad day for humanism, human rights, and freedom in Nigeria. The sentencing of Mubarak Bala is a stark violation of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief. We urge the authorities in Nigeria to ensure that this judicial charade does not stand.’
Igwe added elsewhere that the sentencing could silence other atheists throughout the country; he said they could be deemed “potential criminals … who can easily be thrown into jail just for expressing their views.”
The president of Humanists International, Andrew Copson, echoed those sentiments, adding that the legal process was a joke the entire time:
‘The thoughts of the whole global humanist movement are with our friend Mubarak, his wife, and his baby son. For two years Mubarak’s fundamental rights to liberty and a fair trial have been consistently violated. He has been charged and found guilty of offences that amount to no more than expressing a non-religious opinion. This is a day of shame for the Nigerian authorities, who have imposed an unthinkable punishment on an innocent man.
‘We appreciate the efforts so far of the UK Government in support of his release, but it is clear that those efforts now need redoubling. We will be working with them and others to try to secure the release of our innocent friend and colleague.’
Humanists International went on to highlight the lack of justice throughout Bala’s ordeal:
Bala’s case has been subject to a series of procedural irregularities that have hindered his right to a fair trial. They include:
— Being presented in court for the first time 644 days after his arrest;
— Being denied access to medical care;
— Being held without charge for 462 days;
— Being denied access to his legal team for more than five months;
— Court hearings have been subjected to repeated adjournments;
— The Kano State Police Commissioner repeatedly refused to comply with an order issued by a Magistrate requiring the police to grant Bala access to his legal team;
— The Kano State authorities have failed to comply with a ruling of the Abuja High Court that determined that Bala should be released on bail.
After all that, the Kano State High Court still found a way to make everything worse, all because, in their faith-based legal system, religion has more rights than people.
As the saying goes, blasphemy is a victimless crime. No one deserves this. Bala’s sentence must be overturned. Make no mistake: The sentence will be appealed. But it’s not clear if he’ll ever receive the justice he deserves.