#HRC53 UN Expert on Religious Freedom and Human Rights Defenders Denounce Deadly Violence Motivated by Anti-Blasphemy Laws at UN Human Rights Council Side-Event

GENEVA, Switzerland-  “Today, we are going to hear and be a witness to the persecution of Christians in two of the most difficult countries- Pakistan and Nigeria,” Dr. Grégor Puppinck, former OSCE religious freedom panel expert and ECLJ Director begins. 

Dr. Puppinck shares how anti-blasphemy laws are used not only to prohibit any critical discussion of Islam – including by people of Muslim origin – but also to frighten and condemn innocent people. He flags the case of young Shahzad Masih in Pakistan as a prime example, authorities arrested Shahzad Masih (also Shehzad) at the young age of 16, the judge tried him as an adult, and they recently sentenced him to death for blasphemy.

ACLJ Senior Counsel CeCe Heil outlines the injustices by the Pakistani authorities and how authorities caved to pressure from the violent religious groups by denying Shahzad his rights as a minor and citizen by surrounding the police station and later also packing the courts to intimidate the judge. 

The parents of Shahzad Masih provide their personal story via a pre-recorded video. They share how Shahzad’s Muslim colleague used a blasphemy charge to target their 16-year old son for not wanting to convert to Islam when his colleague insisted he should convert and challenging him for not wanting to leave his Christian faith.

Unfortunately, anti-blasphemy laws do not only have these far-reaching and detrimental effects in states with a favoured state religion but also in the multi-religious and democratic Federal state of Nigeria. Fatima Njoku a Nigerian lawyer with Stefanos Foundation and Kola Alapinni, General Counsel with the Foundation for Religious Freedom share about the challenges with the unconstitutional application of Islamic Sharia Penal laws which include severe anti-blasphemy laws in the 12 northern states – which criminalise any questioning of Islam, its laws or prophet, even including the sanction of the death penalty.

Fatima Njoku emphasises how the Constitution of Nigeria guarantees freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief [Section 38(1)] and also does not give preference to any religion [Section 10]. She references additional provisions, including the right to a fair trial and freedom of expression.

“It is important to note that Nigeria is not suffering from an absence of laws or effective laws, but implementation is [..] the problem,” 
– Fatima Njoku, Stefanos Foundation

She continues by explaining how state anti-blasphemy laws are in direct violation of Nigeria’s constitution and international law commitments and raises concern regarding the State’s inability to hold perpetrators accountable for the rising unlawful killings of individuals accused of blasphemy. “Nigeria is experiencing rising religious extremism mainly because leaders, who swore by their holy books to uphold the constitution, use their positions to advance religious and primordial interests sowing seeds of discord in their utterances and actions,” she says.   

In her recommendations to UN members states, approximately 10 represented in the room at Palais des Nations, she calls for a “repeal of all anti-blasphemy laws” both in Pakistan and Nigeria as they have become drivers for religious extremists and are, “inconsistent with international human rights law.” In the context of Nigeria but also relevant for Pakistan, she calls for, “full investigations and diligent prosecutions” in response to mob violence and extrajudicial killings to make it clear that they are, “unacceptable.” Without accountability she notes, the trends of violence can never be broken. The Centre for Democracy and Development has reported over 13 000 Nigerians being killed extrajudicially and perpetrators go largely unpunished.

Fatima flags the brutal murder of Deborah Emmanuel in May 2022 by her fellow classmates and additional mobs for alleged blasphemy for a message in a WhatsApp group. The perpetrators publicly filmed as they stoned Deborah and set her on fire. Following the murder however, Nigerian authorities arrested only two of the accused, and then only under charges of “inciting public disturbance,” not murder. These suspects were then discharged within months, for “lack of diligent prosecution.” Fatima shares with concern, “in other words, the police didn’t do their due diligence, they abandoned the case.”

Kola Alapinni shares about the two individuals his organisation Foundation for Religious Freedom represented and represents: minor Omar Farouq and Sufi singer Yahaya Sharif Aminu. Both of them identify as Muslim but have still been targeted by anti-blasphemy laws. Kola Alapinni’s legal team was able to completely free Omar Farouq but the overturn of Yahaya Sharif Aminu’s  death sentence was merely on procedural grounds and was therefore sent back to the same Sharia court for retrial, where Sharif-Aminu could again face the death penalty. 

The law behind these unconstitutional and arbitrary detentions are rooted in the Kano State Sharia Penal Code (2000) which allows for the death penalty sanction for blasphemy in 382 B, as well as other brutal penalties, including stoning for adultery and the state sanctioned cutting of arms and legs for theft [125B and 134 respectively].  “This is the law in northern Nigeria – this is not Saudi or Iran,” Kola Alapinni Esq says as he points to the screen behind the panellists showing the different articles in the sharia penal code applied in Kano state. The Sharia penal codes were done away with, “We do not recognise the punitive parts of the sharia law,” Kola shares, and reiterates the international conventions Nigeria freely agreed to be bound by, guaranteeing human dignity and freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief.

He also flags additional religious prisoners of conscience authorities are detaining for exercising their fundamental freedoms, exMuslim Humanist Mubarak Bala and Christian mother Rhoda Jatau. He shares about the pressure placed by authorities on Mubarak Bala to confess to blasphemy, not to mention the authorities’ separation of him from his wife and newborn son. Authorities did not alleviate the penalty following Bala’s confession but sentenced him to 24 years in prison under Sections 210 and 114 of the Kano State Penal Code [not the Sharia penal code]. Authorities also detain Rhoda Jatau in Bauchi state incommunicado for sharing a video on WhatsApp condemning the murder of university student Deborah Emmanuel. Synonymous with both cases is the authorities denial of fair trial for the two citizens, all to appease the majority.

The harmful effects of these accusations of blasphemy on the lives of families becomes clear in the statements by Fatima and Kola who work closely with the victims’ families. At the same time the joy when justice is finally served cannot be forgotten – Kola shows a photo of the the family of Omar Farouq after he was released [authorities initially sentenced the boy to 10 years in prison] the faces of the family are full of gratitude and relief. Unfortunately not even Farouq’s family can return to their home – upon the authorities’ arbitrary detention of their son mobs attacked their home, all this was done with impunity.

The side-event continues as the UN Human Rights Council holds a three-hour urgent debate on religious hatred from the plenary room and the reason the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief is not able to present in-person. The UN Human Rights Council has left reporting on some of the deadliest violence motivated by religious hatred – via anti-apostasy and anti-blasphemy laws – outside the plenary room. The irony was not lost to those in the room hearing the detailed stories from both survivors and human rights defenders.

“The question of anti-blasphemy and anti-apostasy laws have consistently been among the most worrying issues […] representing an affront to the core of freedom of religion and belief and raised regularly by each and every one of the mandate holders.”

– Dr. Nazila Ghanea, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief

Dr. Nazila Ghanea, the current UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief,  affirms the concerns raised in the room, while apologising for not being able to attend in-person due to the urgent debate. She notes, “The question of anti-blasphemy and anti-apostasy laws have consistently been among the most worrying issues […] representing an affront to the core of freedom of religion and belief and raised regularly by each and every one of the mandate holders.” She shares that Pakistan and Nigeria are countries which have, “serious obstacles to overcome to make freedom of religion or belief a lived reality for those in its jurisdiction.” She quotes the criminalisation of offence to religious belief as being the “foremost among these obstacles.” She calls on states to decriminalise blasphemy and expresses her request to the Nigerian authorities for an official country visit.

Watch her full presentation which includes specific mention of her communications with the Pakistani and Nigerian authorities.