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Nigerian Court of Appeals Upholds Sharia Law in High Profile Blasphemy Case

By Haley Knudsen

08/17/2022 Nigeria (International Christian Concern) – Nigeria’s Kano State High Court doubled down on a ruling that the Sharia court system has the power to hand down death sentences in blasphemy cases. The decision blurs the line between what can be tried in Sharia court, raising concerns on the implications for religious freedom.  

The three-judge panel held that the Kano State Sharia Court has jurisdiction to try blasphemy cases. The ruling comes after the case of Yahaya Aminu Sharif, a 22-year-old singer who was sentenced to death on accusations of blasphemy.  

Sharif was arrested after a series of audio recordings became public where he appeared to elevate an imam above the Muslim prophet Mohammed. In August 2020, the Kano State Sharia Court found Sharif guilty of blasphemy and sentenced him to death.  

However, the court did not allow Sharif legal representation during his trial, so the secular court ruled that the Sharia court must retry Sharif’s case. The order may have appeared positive for Sharif because it allowed him a fair trial. But the order was a green light by a secular court of the Sharia court’s authority to try blasphemy cases and impose religious sentences.  

The court’s actions blur the lines between who and what can be tried in Sharia court, having the potential to use Sharia law as a means of persecuting religious minorities, including northern Nigerian Christians, in the country. Immediately after the initial ruling, Sharif’s lawyers appealed the decision to send his case back to the Sharia Court for a retrial. Today’s ruling, that Sharif’s case be sent back to the Sharia Court for retrial, is the result of that appeal. 

Currently, the 12 northern states of Nigeria operate under two competing legal systems. One system—of which the Kano State High Court is a part—is based on the secular Nigerian penal code. The other is based on Sharia law.  

The constitutionality of this system has long been debated, as the Nigerian Constitution guarantees religious freedom to citizens, including the right to “to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.” Sharia courts, to the contrary, enforce strict adherence to Islam and severely punishes perceived insults to Islam. 

“Today’s High Court ruling represents a major setback for human rights in Nigeria overall,” said Jay Church, International Christian Concern’s (ICC) Advocacy Manager for Africa. “For a secular court to officially recognize a Sharia court’s jurisdiction to hand down death sentences for blasphemy is the largest step backward in Nigeria’s legal system since the implementation of criminal Sharia law in 2000. I hope that the international community, including the U.S. Department of State, recognizes this development for the egregious violation of human rights that it is.” 

“The court’s decision is a strike against religious freedom in Nigeria and officially sets the legal structure for the continued persecution of Nigeria’s Christians,” said Matias Perttula, ICC’s Director of Advocacy. “This decision was clearly a step back for all human rights, religious freedom, and freedom as whole for Nigeria.” 

The High Court order sparked condemnation from human rights advocates around the world. 

Commenting on the case earlier this year, Frederick Davie of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) called on the High Court to release Sharif immediately. “Convicting this man on blasphemy charges for expressing his beliefs is reprehensible—and sentencing him to death for such actions is absurd. He does not deserve to be detained for two years, let alone sentenced to death.” 

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Since 1995, ICC has served the global persecuted church through a three-pronged approach of advocacy, awareness, and assistance. ICC exists to bandage the wounds of persecuted Christians and to build the church in the toughest parts of the world.

Source: Persecution.