“We are afraid they might be trying to kill her,” says Rev. Ishaku Dano, a pastor in Nigeria’s Bauchi State where Christian health worker Rhoda Ya’u Jatau has been imprisoned since May 2022 for alleged blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad.
“When I saw her in court, she was looking battered and traumatized. She manages to smile, apparently to keep her family from worrying, but you could see it in her eyes that she is dying slowly,” said Dano, who is in charge of the Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA) in Katanga town where Jatau and her family worshipped.
As of February 16, the 45-year-old had spent 272 days in jail in Muslim-dominated Bauchi State in northeastern Nigeria. She was arrested on May 20, 2022 and since then has been locked up at the Medium Correctional Centre in the state capital.
The mother of five is charged with blasphemy and incitement. Under the Sharia laws of northern Nigeria, those convicted of blasphemy may face capital punishment. At least two people, including a leader of a minority Muslim sect, have been handed death sentences under the same laws in recent months.
On February 6, a pale-looking Jatau was brought before Bauchi High Court Number 12 for the continuation of her trial, which began in December 2022, Dano said. Judge Nana Fatima Ibrahim heard the second of four witnesses called by the prosecution before adjourning the hearing to February 14. At that hearing, a third witness – a police officer who had interrogated Jatau – gave evidence against her. The court was then adjourned again, until March 6.
The first witness to give evidence did so at a hearing on January 16. As in previous hearings, Judge Ibrahim rejected an application for bail.
Prior to the formal commencement of the trial, Judge Ibrahim declined to approve bail for Jatau, citing a possible outbreak of public disturbances.
Hundreds of Muslim youths had protested in Warji, Jatau’s hometown, on May 20, 2022 after her work colleagues reported that a video Jatau had forwarded to a WhatsApp group was blasphemous. The video, from a Ghanaian Muslim, appeared to condemn the mob lynching of Deborah Samuel, a Christian student from Sokoto, on May 12.
The rampaging mobs injured at least 15 Christians and destroyed several properties belonging to Christians while clamouring for Jatau’s death.
After defence attorneys filed an appeal challenging her refusal to grant bail to Jatau, Judge Ibrahim opened the trial on December 16, frustrating further attempts to free her.
But contrary to the judge’s claims that keeping her in jail would ensure Jatau’s safety, Dano fears the health worker might be in greater danger there.
“We have heard that some Muslims are holding secret meetings with government officials to push for a death sentence to be passed on her. They say since a Muslim cleric in Kano State has been handed a death sentence for committing the same offence, she too must go,” said Dano.
Dano referred to the case of Sheikh Abduljabbar Nasiru Kabara, a Shi’a Muslim cleric, who on December 14 was sentenced to death by hanging by an upper Sharia court in Kano for his alleged revisionist preaching. Kabara was declared guilty of blasphemy after being held in custody since July 2021.
The rare ruling against a Muslim religious leader followed a prolonged persecution of the Shi’a sect by the predominantly Sunni Muslim authorities in northern Nigeria.
Kabara’s sentence was widely celebrated by non-Shi’a Muslims around the country. But in Bauchi it is seen as providing grounds for the execution of Rhoda Jatau, who has dedicated her life to providing medical care to the predominantly Muslim population of Bauchi.
Hours prior to the opening of Jatau’s trial on December 16, a crowd of Muslim youths gathered in front of the high court, said Dano.
This followed days after rumours of a planned mob attack circulated among residents. Sources in Bauchi say Muslim youths had planned to seize Jatau from prison guards and stone her to death as she was brought to the court.
A swift intervention by Christian Solidarity International (CSI) saw police and the military securing the court premises to prevent violence hours before her arrival. But the experience has left the minority Christians in Bauchi terrified for Jatau.
“You know these people will always find a reason to carry out their intentions and the sentencing of Kabara strengthens them in this,” said Dano who noted he had personally pleaded with Bauchi State Governor Bala Mohammed to consider releasing Jatau but was ignored.
“We are fervently praying that this [lynching] does not happen, but they are the ones in charge and anything can happen,” he said.
CSI has been supporting the family of Rhoda Jatau, who are living in hiding, including with food aid.
A tearful Ya’u Adamu, Jatau’s husband, said the support had strengthened his faith.
“I will never stop following Jesus. It is because of the love of Christ that this organization has supported me. I am standing strong in my faith,” he said.
Adamu made a plea for religious rights advocates around the world to intervene and help free his wife.