Blasphemy: UN rapporteurs demand release of atheist detained in Kano

Nigerian atheist Mubarak Bala

Seven United Nations human rights experts have demanded the release of self-acclaimed atheist Mubarak Bala who has been detained without charge by the police for a year over alleged blasphemy.

Mr Bala, who is the president of Humanist Association of Nigeria, faces the death penalty if convicted under Sharia law.

He was arrested at his home in Kaduna State on April 28, 2020 over his Facebook post considered to be critical of Islam.

The 36-year-old grew up in a traditional Muslim family, with a father who had three wives and a mother who had nine children. He, however, grew up to be irreligious.

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

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

He has been in illegal detention despite Justice Inyang Ekwo of a Federal High Court in Abuja ordering his release.

In a statement on Wednesday, seven experts and special rapporteurs of the UN condemned the Nigerian government over 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,” they said in the statement which was also published by the Office of the High Commission of the UN Human Rights.

Describing 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.

“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.”

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

“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,” they added.

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

Others are special rapporteur on the right to physical and mental health, Tlaleng Mofokeng; special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Morris Tidball-Binz; special rapporteur on minority issues, Fernand de Varennes; special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression, Irene Khan; and special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Diego García-Sayán.