Nigeria: Alleged Blasphemy - UN Experts Demand Release of Nigerian Atheist From One-Year Detention

The UN human rights experts say Mr Bala's prolonged detention is a "flagrant violation of fundamental rights" and has "a chilling effect on the exercise of fundamental freedoms in Nigeria".

Seven United Nation (UN) human rights experts on Thursday demanded the release of a Nigerian atheist and humanist, Mubarak Bala, who has been detained without charge by the police for a year over alleged blasphemy.

The experts' demand add to calls by many human rights groups, including Amnesty International, in the last one year for the release of the activist who faces death penalty if convicted under the law being operated in many parts of Northern Nigeria.

Mr Bala who is the president of Humanist Association of Nigeria, was arrested at his home in Kaduna State on April 28, 2020 over his Facebook post considered to be critical of Islam.

The post reportedly caused outrage among Muslims in many parts of highly conservative northern part of the country.

The detainee whose arrest was prompted by a petition by a lawyer, S.S Umar, backed by some Islamic figures, was later transferred to the neighbouring Kano State.

His whereabouts remained unknown to his family and lawyer for many months before he was later granted access to them.

Delivering judgment in a fundamental human rights enforcement suit filed on his behalf, a judge of the Federal High Court in Abuja, Inyang Ekwo, on December 21, 2020, declared Mr Bala's detention illegal and ordered his immediate release.

The court also ruled that the denial of his ability to choose his own legal representation, constituted gross infringements of his rights to personal liberty, fair hearing, freedom of thought, expression and movement.

It awarded damages of N250,000 damages in his favour.

But the judgment has been ignored by authorities.

Human rights experts condemn Nigerian government

Seven experts and special rapporteurs of the UN, in a statement on Wednesday, denounced the Nigerian government over Mr Bala's continued detention.

"Today marks one year since Mr. Bala was arrested and detained in Kano State, without any formal charges, on allegations of blasphemy. His arbitrary detention has continued despite our appeals to the Government in May and July last year," the human rights experts said in the statement which was also published by the Office of the High Commission of the UN Human Rights.

Describing Mr Bala's prolonged detention as a "flagrant violation of fundamental human rights," the experts said it also sends the wrong signal to extremist groups that silencing and intimidation of human rights defenders and others is acceptable.

"The arrest and prolonged detention of Mr. Bala is not only a flagrant violation of fundamental rights, but it has also had a chilling effect on the exercise of fundamental freedoms in Nigeria.

"Through his continued detention, the Government is sending the wrong signal to extremist groups that the silencing and intimidation of human rights defenders and minority non-believers is acceptable," the experts stated.

'Government undermining competence of nation's judicial system'

The experts expressed disappointment in Nigerian government for what they described as a blatant undermining of the competence of the country's judicial system through its disregard for the court order ordering Mr Bala's release.

"We are disappointed that the respondents failed to comply with the court's order and blatantly undermined the competence of the judicial system," the experts said, adding that, "The government must take action to ensure that the responsible authorities respect the due process and enforce the judicial ruling."

The experts noted that Mr. Bala's lawyer on January 27 filed another application for his release at the Federal High Court in Abuja.

A hearing was scheduled for 20 April, which has not yet taken place because court personnel are on strike.

"As soon as the courts resume, the hearing of the new petition must proceed promptly and the authorities must end this unjustified prolonged detention of Mr. Bala for good," the experts said.

Security concerns

The experts also expressed concern about his security and general well-being in detention, adding that the use of blasphemy law is against human rights law.

"We remain deeply concerned for Mr. Bala's security due to continuous death threats and his overall well-being in detention. Such prolonged incarceration may also amount to a form of psychological torture that could severely impact on his mental and physical health in consequence.

"International law protects everyone's freedom of thought, conscience and religion or beliefs and the right to opinion and expression but it does not protect religions or beliefs per se. The use of blasphemy law is against international human rights law and the imposition of death penalty based for blasphemy is doubly egregious," stressed the experts.

Mr Bala was reportedly forcibly taken to a psychiatric facility by his family after renouncing Islam in 2014.

The religious critic was later discharged from the facility in Kano.

The UN experts who signed the statement include, Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief; Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

They also include, Tlaleng Mofokeng, Special Rapporteur on the right to physical and mental health, and Morris Tidball-Binz, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; Fernand de Varennes, Special Rapporteur on minority issues.

The rest are, Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression and Diego García-Sayán, Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers.

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