Nigerian woman jailed for ‘blasphemy’ for 18 months over WhatsApp message

Jatau has been in detention since May 2022 when she shared a WhatsApp video condemning mob action on another woman.

Motorists drive past the Bauchi city gate
Motorists drive past the Bauchi city gate along the Bauchi-Gombe highway in Bauchi state January 29, 2015 [Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters]

Lagos, Nigeria — For sharing a message among her co-workers that criticised a mob action last May, Rhoda Ya’u Jatau has spent the last year in police detention on charges of blasphemy towards Islam.

The healthcare administrator with the Warji local government in Bauchi, northeastern Nigeria was arrested a few days after forwarding the video condemning the burning to death of Deborah Yakubu, a university student in Sokoto, another state, over alleged blasphemy.

Prosecutors allege that by sharing the video, Jatau, then 45, committed multiple offences of inciting disturbance, contempt” for religious creed, and cyberstalking.

Last Monday, a Bauchi state high court rejected her “no-case submission”. Kola Alapinni, lead counsel at Abuja-based nonprofit Foundation for Religious Freedom who is familiar with the case, told Al Jazeera that the defence team is expected to make a case when the court sits again in December.

If found guilty, Jatau, a mother of five and Christian, could be sentenced to a few years in prison, he said.

The court’s decision has sparked public outrage in parts of Nigeria, a country with a history of religious extremism.

“This really shows how far extremism has permeated deeply into our institutions,” said Ndi Kato, politician and executive director of Dinidari, an advocacy group for women’s rights in the Middle Belt region, as central Nigeria is often referred to. “You will lock a person for just forwarding a message because you don’t think that it favours what you believe in? I don’t think that has any place in our society today.”

‘Highly restricted’

Half of Nigerians are Muslims and a slightly smaller proportion – 45 percent – of their compatriots are Christians but Nigeria is officially a secular country whose constitution allows for freedom of speech and religious association. For decades, religious tensions have found their way into many facets of life in what is also an ethnically diverse country. This is most pronounced in northern Nigeria where many states have adopted variations of the conservative Islamic law since the country’s return to democracy in 1999.

Before and after the law, dissenting beliefs and opinions or actions deemed to be blasphemy have routinely sparked riots, mob action, or jail sentences in the region. Across the north, judgements critics of Islamic law consider harsh, including death by stoning, have been handed out repeatedly.

This has also been the case in Bauchi, one of Nigeria’s 36 states, which is wedged between the predominantly Christian Middle Belt and the mostly Muslim northeast. The state adopted Islamic law in 2001.

Nigeria is one of the 12 countries in the world that still criminalises blasphemy and one of the seven where it is punishable by death, according to Alapinni.

Isa Sanusi, country director for Amnesty International in Nigeria, said blasphemy or accusations of blasphemy are now a tool for gross human rights violations or even for “settling personal scores”.

“Repeatedly, Nigerian authorities failed to uphold and protect human rights by making sure that people are not either killed or attacked for expressing their opinions,” he told Al Jazeera.

Wakili Mathew Laslimbo, the general secretary of the Christian Association of Nigeria in Bauchi, said the minority Christian community in the state is unhappy about Jatau’s arrest. He told Al Jazeera that the association had tried everything possible to help, including trying to meet the state governor, to no avail.

“The arrest prove[s] to us that the freedom of speech and religion is highly restricted … the church continues to pray for her during gatherings,” her pastor Rev Ishaku Dano Ayuba told Al Jazeera.

The Bauchi state government did not respond to a request for comments. Temitope Ajayi, a presidential spokesperson, told Al Jazeera that the federal government had no knowledge of the case.

Rhoda Jatau appears in court in Bauchi
Rhoda Jatau appears in court in Bauchi alongside prison officials [Courtesy: Christian Solidarity International]

A pattern of extremism

There have also been other high-profile cases of blasphemy in recent years.

Mubarak Bala, an atheist and president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria who was arrested on the allegation of a blasphemous post on his Facebook account, has been in detention since 2020. Similarly, Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, a Sufi (Islamic) gospel artist, was sentenced to death on the charge of sharing blasphemous song lyrics on WhatsApp. The case is still in court.

Amnesty International has called for their immediate and unconditional release, as well as protection of their rights afterwards.

“Nigerian authorities must wake up to their national and international legal obligations to protect and promote human rights, including the right to freedom of religion,” Amnesty director Sanusi said.

In August, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief released a statement on the issue.

“We express concern over the criminalisation of blasphemy in Nigeria contrary to international human rights law and standards and the rising episodes of violence relating to accusations of blasphemy targeting religious minorities in Nigeria,” it said.

According to Sanusi, the latest case underscores the need for justice through a fair trial of all people suspected of responsibility for mob violence to deter would-be perpetrators.

After Yakubu’s lynching in Sokoto, the arrested perpetrators were let off the hook due to the negligence of the prosecution who refused to show up at the court hearing. In contrast, since Jatau was arrested by the police, she has been denied bail and her family has been in hiding for fear of violence against them.

Jatau’s ongoing ordeal, Dindari’s Kato said, is part of a pattern that signals that women in the north and Nigeria as a country are not safe.

“A person who was complaining about this injustice is the person that is going to jail,” she said. “Extremism takes out women and it is just disheartening. This means that women are not safe and we need to speak.”

Last August, the sultan of Sokoto, considered the leader of all Muslims in Nigeria, told new recruits in the one-year mandatory national youth service programme that Islamic law would not apply to non-Muslims among them.

Alapinni agrees, pointing out that Nigeria’s Court of Appeal had indeed ruled in two earlier cases that Islamic law is limited to Islamic personal law which includes succession, inheritance, and marriage.

“There is no room under the constitution for Sharia criminal law,” he said. “The sultan [of Sokoto] is right when he says the Sharia law is not supposed to affect non-Muslims. In fact, the Sharia criminal law should not have been promulgated in the first place … [it] has no place … in a country multicultural, diverse and multireligious like Nigeria,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera