Rhoda Ya’u Jatau, a Christian health worker from northern Nigeria, is approaching her 500th day in prison where she awaits the continuation of her trial for alleged blasphemy. Jatau has been locked up since her arrest in May 2022. Court hearings in her case are repeatedly postponed.
Rhoda with her family. photo supplied
Jatau, a mother of five from Bauchi State, was arrested on May 20, 2022, after allegedly forwarding a video condemning the mob lynching of Deborah Samuel, a Christian student from Sokoto, a few days earlier. Hundreds of Muslim youths went on a rampage in the Christian-majority neighborhood of Katanga, where Jatau lived, after her co-workers accused her of disseminating material insulting Islam.
The 45-year-old is charged with blasphemy and incitement and could face capital punishment under northern Nigeria’s shari’a laws, if convicted. However, a verdict in the case does not appear imminent. Jatau’s trial has dragged on for the past nine months.
The prosecution has closed its case, but the defense has been unable to present its case. An attempt by her lawyers to enter a no-case submission has been repeatedly stymied as the judge defers court dates.
At least five scheduled court hearings have failed to take place since March 2023. Meanwhile, Jatau continues to be deprived of her liberty, having been denied bail.
On September 20, Jatau’s lawyer and human rights observers attended the High Court in Bauchi for the resumption of the hearing only to learn that the Bauchi State government had called a last-minute public holiday. The trial was pushed back once more, to October 16, when the defense will again attempt to have the case dismissed.
“The postponement appears to be a tactical delay to keep Jatau in continued remand,” commented Solomon Dalyop Mwantiri, a human rights activist from Plateau State who had traveled to Bauchi to monitor proceedings on September 20.
“A religious agenda of Christian persecution is being played out in this case.”
Christian Solidarity International (CSI) Senior Researcher on Subsaharan Africa Franklyne Ogbunwezeh says the denial of justice to Jatau is in line with a strategy in northern shari’a states to silence those who are vocal about Christian persecution. “We saw that in the case of journalists Luka Binniyat and Steven Kefas in Kaduna State, where the courts kept postponing hearings. These cases were never prosecuted to a conclusion because the state had no case that would stand up to scrutiny in court.”
Ogbunwezeh points out that Binniyat and Kefas were quietly released from jail when international attention began to focus on their cases. In the case of Binniyat, CSI conducted an advocacy campaign that included an appeal to United States President Joe Biden to intervene with the Nigerian authorities.
In the case of Jatau too, international pressure has been brought to bear on the government.
On December 13, 2022 CSI organized a coalition of 25 religious freedom and human rights organizations, experts and practitioners to sign an open letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, asking him to intervene on behalf of Jatau.
“We respectfully urge you to intervene with the Nigerian authorities at the highest levels to secure Rhoda’s freedom,” the signatories wrote. “We likewise urge you to make it clear to the Nigerian authorities your firm opposition to blasphemy laws.”
Bauchi State is one of 12 northern Nigerian states to have adopted shari’a law into their criminal justice system since 1999. In recent years, several Nigerians have been sentenced under shari’a to lengthy prison sentences, or even death, for perceived insults to Islam.
In Kano State, a shari’a court sentenced 13-year-old Omar Farouq to 10 years in jail in 2020 for alleged blasphemy, while Yahaya Sharif, a 22-year-old musician, was handed the death sentence in the same year for sharing a song with purportedly profane lyrics on social media. Farouq was cleared of the charges and released the following year, after international appeals to then-president Muhammadu Buhari. He is said to have fled abroad. Yahaya remains in prison as he appeals his case to the Supreme Court of Nigeria.