In a significant legal development, a Nigerian court has handed down a 24-year prison sentence to Mubarak Bala, an outspoken atheist, for posting content on Facebook that authorities deemed blasphemous against Islam. This verdict comes after a lengthy trial, during which Bala spent nearly two years in detention. The case highlights the challenges faced by individuals who openly profess their disbelief in northern Nigeria, predominantly a Muslim region.
Mubarak Bala, formerly a Muslim, serves as the president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria. His conviction underscores the risks associated with being openly faithless in this part of the country.
Prosecutors in northern Kano state accused Bala of using Facebook to insult the Prophet Muhammad and the Islamic religion, alleging that his posts aimed to “cause a breach of the public peace,” according to court documents.
Mubarak Bala had consistently maintained his innocence throughout the trial. However, he changed his plea to guilty, citing “enormous pressure for the past few years,” as stated by Leo Igwe, founder of the Nigerian Humanist Association.
While Bala faced trial in a secular court, it’s worth noting that Nigeria also has Islamic courts in other parts of its northern region where a guilty verdict for blasphemy can result in a death sentence.
Bala’s decision to change his plea was influenced by concerns that the judge might be compromised. His lawyer, James Ibori, explained that Bala wanted closure and believed this was the best course of action.
Criticism has arisen over Bala’s prolonged imprisonment and subsequent conviction. Some Nigerians and activists argue that the prosecution process was flawed. Additionally, they assert that he should not have been charged under Kano state law because he was not in Kano when the alleged offense occurred.
During his time in prison, Mubarak Bala reportedly faced hardships, including a lack of access to healthcare, solitary confinement, and pressure to adhere to Islamic practices, despite his non-belief.
The Kano state government has denied any wrongdoing in the trial and emphasized the possibility of an appeal.
With Bala’s conviction, humanists and non-believers in Nigeria are concerned about the implications for free expression. Leo Igwe remarked, “Humanists have become endangered citizens of Nigeria,” suggesting that they now risk incarceration merely for expressing their views. This case raises significant questions about religious freedom and freedom of expression in the country.