The Nigerian police should immediately disclose the whereabouts of Mubarak Bala, president of the Nigerian Humanist Association, who has been detained incommunicado since April 28, 2020, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.
Bala was arrested at his home by police in Kaduna State in response to a complaint by lawyers accusing him of publicly insulting the Prophet Muhammad on his Facebook page. The police transferred him to Kano State around May 2, but have since refused to provide details of his whereabouts and denied access to his wife and lawyers.
“Regardless of the offense or the sensitivity of the case, the authorities may not withhold information on Bala’s whereabouts from people legally authorized to know,” said Anietie Ewang, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities are required to ensure that he has regular and adequate access to his legal counsel, and Bala’s family should be able to speak to him.”
Nigerian law criminalizes insult to religion. Islamic Sharia laws applicable in the country’s 12 northern states with a significant or majority Muslim population, including Kano, also criminalize blasphemy. People have been sentenced to death for blasphemy under Sharia law. Blasphemy allegations have also triggered violent riots and killings in Kano State. Nigeria’s constitution, however, protects freedom of thought, conscience, and religion and guarantees the right to freedom of expression.
Bala has been an outspoken religious critic in the conservative northern region, where open religious opposition is unusual. After renouncing Islam in 2014, he was forcibly committed to a psychiatric facility by his family in Kano. He was discharged and has continued to receive death threats for alleged blasphemy.
The petition against Bala to the Kano State Police Command concerned his Facebook comment comparing Prophet Muhammad to a Nigerian Evangelical preacher who he suggested was better than the Prophet because he was not a terrorist. The lawyers contended that he had violated Nigeria’s cybercrimes law, which criminalizes insult of people based on their religion. It also alleged that the posts were contrary to the Kano State penal code, which sets punishments of up to two years in prison for public insults or contempt of any religion likely to lead to a breach of peace.
James Ibor, the lawyer heading Bala’s legal team, told Human Rights Watch that the authorities have yet to bring charges against him. He said that the Kano police filed a First Information Report on May 4 before a magistrate court, which under the criminal procedure code should evaluate whether to proceed with charges. The lawyer said the response has been slower than usual.
Ibor also said that the magistrate had granted a police application to keep Bala in protective custody. Details of the order, made without the knowledge of Bala’s legal team, are yet to be made available to them.
Leo Igwe, the founder of the Nigerian Humanist Association, told Human Rights Watch that he believes Bala’s arrest was an effort by the authorities to silence him and send a strong message that such views and ways of thinking will not be tolerated. “It is not clear why the authorities will transfer Bala to Kano State, which is prone to religious tensions, if they are concerned about his safety,” he said.
Bala’s wife told Human Rights Watch that she had repeatedly called the Kano State Police Commissioner to ask about her husband’s whereabouts, but has not received a response. “I have sleepless nights worrying about Bala while struggling to care for our baby who was born a month before the arrest,” she said.
Bala’s lawyers filed a case at the Federal High Court in Abuja in May, but the case has yet to be heard due to Covid-19-related delays in court processes. The case challenges Bala’s arrest and detention as a violation of his rights to liberty, fair trial, freedom of thought and expression, and freedom of movement, as enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution and international human rights law.
The UN Human Rights Committee has stated that prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, in principle violate freedom of expression. Authorities rejected the claims that access to Bala’s lawyers has been denied. Habu Ahmadu, the Kano state police commissioner, told Human Rights Watch in a phone interview on July 4 that Bala’s case was before the courts, where he is free to have legal representation. “The lawyers should be able to get access to him from the courts,” he said.
On June 29, the Magistrate Court in Kano granted an order mandating the police to allow Bala’s lawyers access to him after a formal application was made. The order has still not been processed by the chief magistrate and so cannot be enforced. The delay appears to be an effort to further impede access.
“The authorities should urgently allow Bala’s lawyers access to their client and preclude any further delay in the justice process,” Ewang said. “Immediate steps should be taken to charge him with an offense that does not violate his human rights, or release him unconditionally.”