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       • Mubarak

On 28 April, Nigerian police arrested Mubarak Bala, president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, on charges of “blasphemy”. He had allegedly posted criticism of Islam on his Facebook wall. This was not the first time Bala was arrested for his non-belief – he was previously detained in 2014 because of his open atheism. On that occasion, he was held for 18 days in a psychiatric ward in the north of Nigeria, medicated and barred from communicating with the outside world.

Now, he is once again in danger. While Nigeria’s constitution theoretically protects freedom of expression, the country allows states to operate Sharia courts. Under Sharia law, blasphemy can be punished by death. Enforcement differs by state. Police have transferred Bala to Kano state in the north-west of the country, which is known to have a very active Sharia court.

The arrest seems to be the result of a petition from a group of lawyers, which was sent to local police. Before his arrest, Bala received several death threats from Muslims in Kano who were angered by his writings on Islam. According to Bala, one of those who made the threats was a police officer in Kano.

Leo Igwe, chair of the board of trustees of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, has said everyone in the group is “deeply worried” by the arrest. “They are likely to try him under Sharia law in Kano, which could lead to capital punishment.”

Humanists International is coordinating efforts to free Bala, urging sympathetic groups and individuals to spread awareness and contribute to a crowdfunding campaign. 

This article appears in the Witness section of the summer 2020 issue of the New Humanist.