A Nigerian atheist and outspoken critic of religion was sentenced to 24 years in jail on Tuesday after pleading guilty to blasphemy charges in the largely Muslim northern state of Kano, in a ruling that puts a spotlight on religious freedoms in the country.
Charges against Mubarak Bala are linked to comments he posted on Facebook in April 2020 that were critical of Islam and which authorities in Kano considered blasphemous and an insult to the religion, his lawyer said.
When asked by Kano High Court Judge Farouk Lawan whether he had been coerced to enter a guilty plea to the 18 charges, Bala said he did so of his own free will.
Bala, who heads the Humanist Association of Nigeria, was arrested at his home in the northern Kaduna state two years ago and was then moved to neighbouring Kano, a majority Muslim and conservative state.
The Humanist Association said Tuesday that Mubarak’s guilty plea “was not part of the agreed legal strategy, and came as a surprise (to) his legal team.”
“It is likely that he was subjected to intimidation, and could have been tricked into pleading guilty in the hopes of a light sentence,” the association added in a statement on its website.
Bala’s lawyer, James Ibor, said Tuesday’s sentencing was “very outrageous” and could be challenged.
“The sentence infringes his right as an atheist,” Ibor told Reuters.
Kano’s Commissioner for Information, Mohammed Garba, told CNN on Wednesday that the state government “would abide by the rulings of the court.”
Convictions for blasphemy are not new in Kano,where a version of Sharia law operates and is enforced by a religious police known as the Hisbah Corps.
Two years ago, a 22-year-old music studio assistant, Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, was sentenced to death by hanging after being convicted by an Islamic court in Kano of making “a blasphemous statement against Prophet Mohammed in a WhatsApp group.”