United Nations (UN) human rights experts have called on the Nigerian authorities to immediately release Mubarak Bala, a prominent humanist and rights defender who has been detained without charge on accusations of blasphemy, a potential capital offence in parts of Northern Nigeria.
They expressed deep concern over the serious lack of due process in Mubarak’s case, noting that he has been held incommunicado, denied access to a lawyer and family members since April 28, 2020, when he was arrested in Kaduna and transferred to Kano State where he has been detained without charge.
The UN experts said: “The arrest and detention of Mr. Bala amount to persecution of non-believers in Nigeria,” adding “We are concerned that he may be prosecuted under anti-blasphemy laws that provide for capital punishment in Nigeria.”
The independent experts pointed out that the expression of opinion and beliefs, including what is seen to offend religious sensibilities, is protected by international law and should not be restricted. They said “The application of the death penalty for alleged ‘blasphemy’ is a flagrant violation of Nigeria’s international human rights law obligations” and reminding Nigeria that international law prohibits sanction against anyone for adopting, changing or not having any religion or belief.
They said: “We are also gravely concerned about Mr. Bala’s safety, while in detention, in light of the death threats against him, and further fear that he may be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment due to his atheistic beliefs.”
The experts recalled that in 2014 Bala was forcibly admitted to the psychiatric ward of Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital for 18 days after he had been assessed as needing psychiatric help for being an atheist, saying “We deplore the use of psychiatric institutions for the detention and silencing of those with different opinions through medical diagnosis and isolation.”
The experts further noted that reports indicate that the small community of non-religious people or non-believers in Nigeria constantly face harassment, discrimination, persecution and prohibitive social taboos, adding that they were disappointed that the Government had not responded to their urgent appeal sent in May.
They said: “No one should be arbitrarily detained or arrested for expressing peacefully their opinion, thought and conscience or for simply being an atheist.”
Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.