ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — A Nigerian court has sentenced an atheist to 24 years in prison for making social media posts it found to be blasphemous against the Islamic religion in the West African nation’s northern region.
Mubarak Bala, an ex-Muslim, was sentenced on Tuesday after pleading guilty to charges of blasphemy, his lawyer told The Associated Press. The sentence was the climax of a lengthy trial during which he spent nearly two years in prison.
Bala is the president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria and activists say his conviction illustrates the risks of being openly faithless in northern Nigeria, which is predominantly Muslim.
Prosecutors in the northern Kano state accused Bala of making Facebook posts that insulted the Prophet Muhammad and the religion of Islam and attempted to “cause a breach of the public peace,” according to court documents provided to AP by Bala’s legal team.
Bala long maintained his innocence over the charges of blasphemy but he changed his plea to guilty only after “enormous pressure for the past few years,” said Leo Igwe, founder of the Nigerian Humanist Association.
Bala “expressed frustration over the delay in his trial,” Bala’s lawyer James Ibori told AP. “He thinks the judge is compromised … and that he would rather just have closure.”
Bala was tried in a secular court but could have risked a death sentence in Nigeria’s Islamic courts that operate in other parts of the country’s north.
Bala’s prolonged stay in prison and eventual conviction caused anger among some Nigerians and activists who accused authorities of a flawed prosecution process. He should not have been charged under Kano state law, his lawyer Ibori said, because “he was not in Kano when the offense was allegedly committed.”
While in prison, Bala had been denied access to health care, kept in solitary confinement and forced “to worship the Islamic way,” his lawyer has told AP. The Kano state government denied any wrongdoing in the trial and said the judgment could be appealed.
With Bala’s conviction, humanists and nonbelievers in Nigeria are “now potential criminals … who can easily be thrown into jail just for expressing their views,” said Igwe of the Humanist Association. “Humanists have become endangered citizens of Nigeria.”