Supporters of free speech in Nigeria are expressing concern after a federal court ruled this week that a singer appealing his death sentence for blasphemy must have his case retried in a Shariah court.
Yahaya Aminu Sharif’s lawyer argued his case should be tried in a secular court and challenged the legality of Nigeria’s Islamic courts, which critics say threaten free speech.
But in its decision delivered Wednesday on Zoom, the Kano state appeals court ruled 2-1 that Islamic law does not violate the national charter and that Islamic courts have jurisdiction to try blasphemy cases.
The ruling dismissed a challenge filed by Sharif’s lawyer, Kola Alapinni, questioning the legality of the death sentence. One of the judges, Abubakar Muazu Lamido, said the challenge was not backed by law, and that it was “more out of sentiment.”
An Islamic court in Kano sentenced Sharif to death in August 2020 for allegedly circulating a song that blasphemed the Muslim Prophet Mohammed on social media.
In November, the Kano High Court overruled the sentence and ordered a retrial at the Shariah court, stating that Sharif did not have any legal representation during his trial.
Activists are raising concerns about the appeals court ruling. Abuja-based human rights lawyer Martin Obono called it a threat to free speech. But Kano state Attorney General and Justice Commissioner Musa Abdullahi Lawan praised the judgment, calling it a victory for Kano citizens.
Sharif’s lawyer has yet to respond to the court’s decision, but he has been opposing Shariah, saying it contravenes the Nigerian Constitution. Islamic scholar Fuad Adeyemi, who serves as executive director of the Al-habibiyyah Islamic society, rejects that assertion.
Shariah, he said, is sometimes “misapplied by people who are not professionals in the handling of it. It’s strictly meant for Muslims to regulate the lives of the Muslims. It doesn’t concern any non-Muslim.”
Shariah is more dominant across the 12 northern Nigerian states, with a strong base in Kano.
Critics say they worry the ruling could encourage overzealous believers to take mob actions against alleged blasphemers.
In May, a female college student was stoned to death and burned by an angry mob in northwest Sokoto state over accusations of blasphemy. Three weeks after that, a member of a vigilante group in Abuja was also killed over blasphemy allegations.
Abuja lawyer Kayode Ajulo compared the cases.
“I know as a lawyer that Shariah law is part of the body of laws in Nigeria,” Ajulo said. “The killing of that innocent girl in Sokoto is a clear criminal case of lynching, murder. It is different from [Shariah] because the issue of blasphemy is still subjected to court or tribunal interpretation, and you can see what the high court has done to say there must be a retrial.”
Blasphemy is a sensitive topic in Nigeria, a country of more than 200 million people with a nearly equal distribution of Christians and Muslims.
The offense is punishable by a jail sentence under the country’s secular law. But in the far north, the punishment is stricter, including a possible death sentence.