Human rights groups are condemning a Nigerian court’s sentencing of an atheist activist to 24 years in prison on charges of blasphemy.

Mubarak Bala, 37, pleaded guilty to 18 charges, including criticizing Islam and its prophets on social media.

Rights group Humanists International said Bala’s decision to plead guilty to the charges during a court hearing Tuesday was surprising, given that his legal team had advised him not to do so. Soon afterward, the Kano state high court issued its verdict.

In a statement late Tuesday, Amnesty International said, “No one should go to jail for peacefully exercising his rights to freedom of expression, thought and belief.”

Seun Bakare, Amnesty International’s spokesperson, said the ruling “came to us as a shock. We at Amnesty International remain deeply concerned; we do not believe that anyone should be sentenced basically for expressing themselves, and of course we’ve campaigned vigorously on this case before now.”

The ruling followed Bala’s arrest at his home in April 2020 for making posts on Facebook that the court said criticized Islam and the Muslim Prophet Muhammad.

Humanists International called for a reversal of the ruling and said it was a day of shame for Nigerian authorities. The government has not commented on the court action.

Possible reasons for plea

Activists suggested that Bala’s sudden decision to plead guilty was perhaps made under duress or done in hopes of getting a more lenient sentence.

“It is difficult to know what may have prompted Mubarak Bala to plead guilty even against the advice of his lawyer,” Bakare said, but it’s “very clear” that Nigeria’s correctional system has an impact on those being held. A defendant’s mental health history “certainly should be one of the factors that the court should consider in sentencing or handing down punishment.”

This is not the first time citizens have been sentenced for blasphemy under the strict religious laws enforced in Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim north.

In August 2020, a 22-year-old musician was sentenced to die for blasphemy, but the death penalty was later lifted. He still faces trial on blasphemy charges.

Ariyo-Dare Atoye of the Nigeria Liberty Center says sharia, or Islamic law, is taken very seriously in the north.

“The core northern part of Nigeria is still largely a closed society when it comes to religious freedom,” Atoye said. “Extremism still rules.”

Bala heads Humanist International’s Nigeria chapter. Some observers said he could have faced the death penalty if his trial had taken place in a sharia court.

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