A prominent Nigerian humanist has been sentenced to 24 years in prison after pleading guilty to blasphemy charges, in a landmark case that has put a new focus on the threats to freedom of expression in the west African country.
Mubarak Bala, the president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, was sentenced on Tuesday afternoon, two years after his arrest at his home in the northern Kaduna state on 28 April 2020. He was then taken to neighbouring Kano, where calls for action against him had been made by members of the religious establishment in the majority Muslim and conservative state.
Bala, the son of a religious scholar in Kano, is an atheist who had been an outspoken religious critic in a staunchly conservative region. He faced death threats and calls for him to be tried for blasphemy after he posted comments critical of Islam on Facebook in April 2020.
In court on Tuesday, to the surprise of his legal team, Bala requested to change his plea to guilty, one of his lawyers said. “Just suddenly, he changed his plea and pleaded guilty to the whole 18-count charges … We were in shock.”
The lawyer said Bala might have seen the guilty plea as a way to end the case. “It feels like he felt he should just know his fate. He didn’t know when this would come to an end. He may have thought a guilty plea would lead to some leniency but the judgment was harsh,” he said.
Leo Igwe, an associate of Bala’s and founder of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, said following the case: “Unfortunately this is a very sad day for humanism and for human rights in Nigeria. The implication is not good for the humanist movement, because it means that humanists will be, by implication, criminal.”
Bala’s detention and treatment has been condemned by Humanists UK and UN human rights experts.
Bala was detained without charge for a year, during which his whereabouts were unknown and he was denied contact with his lawyer or family for months. A high court in the capital, Abuja, ordered his release on bail but the ruling was ignored by Nigerian authorities in Kano and Kaduna.
His case has been seen as an example of a clampdown on voices judged to be critical of religious orthodoxy, in a deeply conservative region. Bala had previously been forcibly committed into a psychiatric facility by his family in Kano, after he renounced Islam in 2014.
Following Bala’s sentence, Igwe claimed that members of the religious establishment had likely threatened Bala to admit guilt. “He was under pressure to admit he was guilty and that otherwise he could die in prison. It was impressed on him by authorities in Kano that the only way his family could be safe was if he admitted that he was guilty, so even against legal advice he decided to agree and face the consequences.”