Nigerian Singer Sentenced to Death for Blasphemy Charges

22-year-old Nigerian singer Yahaya Sharif-Aminu was sentenced to death by hanging for blasphemy charges, as handed down by a Kano State Sharia court in August 2020. While the likelihood that his sentenced will be carried out in reality is extremely low- only one death sentence was executed since 1999- this situation sheds light on the dangers and implications of blasphemy and apostasy laws around the world.

Nigeria’s Criminal Code, though not containing laws criminalizing apostasy- religious conversion- Article 204 does present a clause prohibiting blasphemy: “Any person who does an act which any class of persons consider as a public insult on their religion, with the intention that they should consider the act such an insult, and any person who does an unlawful act with the knowledge that any class of persons will consider it such an insult, is guilty of a misdemeanour, and is liable to imprisonment for two years.”

Sharif-Aminu, an Islam gospel singer, was charged under Article 204 for composing and circulating a song on WhatsApp in March 2020 that peers believed “was blasphemous as it praised an imam from the Tijaniya Muslim brotherhood to the extent that it elevated him above the Prophet Muhammad.” The vague language of Criminal Code Article 204 broadens the net of what acts can be considered ‘blasphemous crimes’- it is impossible to prove whether Sharif-Animu released this song with the explicit “intention” to insult others’ religion; however, he was so quickly criticized by the public and arrested that it appears that intention is only codified on paper as a pre-requisite for arrest and charge, and requiring proof of intention is ignored in practical application.

With Sharif-Aminu’s charge came the exorbitant and unjust death sentence. Criminal Code Article 204 present obstacles to freedom of expression to artists, activists, and ordinary citizens. At the same time, the prevalence of Sharia courts in Nigeria has led to the distribution of harsh and inhumane sentences such as crucifixion, floggings, amputations, and hanging for crimes as minimal as petty theft, religious conversion, extramarital affairs, and even alcohol consumption. The national Nigerian government allows states to establish Sharia courts, and therefore perpetuates the legality of such inhumane sentences.

As the international human rights and religious freedom advocacy community condemns this unjust sentencing, one protester that supported the arrest and imprisonment, Idris Ibrahim, explained “When I heard about the judgement I was so happy because it showed our protest wasn’t in vain.” Kano State Hisbah (Islamic law) policeman Lawan Muhammad claimed “it was the kind of judgement we hoped for when we arrested him.” In Nigeria, it appears not that one is innocent until proven guilty, but that one is guilty unless proven innocent.

Update 12 August 2020 – USCIRF released a public statement condemning the death sentence handed to Sharif-Aminu:

“Blasphemy laws are inconsistent with universal human rights standards because they fail to respect recognized rights, including freedom of religion and expression. The Nigerian government must overturn Sharif-Aminu’s death sentence and repeal blasphemy laws still present in state-sponsored courts.” – USCIRF Vice Chair Tony Perkins

“It is unconscionable that Sharif-Aminu is facing a death sentence merely for expressing his beliefs artistically through music. The U.S. Senate should work swiftly to pass S.Res.458, which calls for the global repeal of heresy, blasphemy, and apostasy laws.” – USCIRF Commissioner Frederick A. Davie

Update 12 August 2020 – Senator Menendez objected the passing of S.Res.458 allegedly on ‘procedural grounds,’ and the bill was not passed with unanimous consent voting:

“2:48 p.m. Senator Lankford spoke about the murder of American citizen, Tahir Ahmed Naseem and on Blasphemy laws. Senator Lankford asked u.c. to call up an pass S.Res.458, A resolution calling for the global repeal of blasphemy, heresy, and apostasy laws. Senator Menendez objected.”

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