Nov 27, 2023

Nigerian blasphemy victim fails in bid to win her freedom

Rhoda Jatau, the Christian healthcare worker who has been detained since May 2022 on blasphemy charges, has lost her legal bid to have the case against her thrown out. The ruling is a huge disappointment for Rhoda, her family and all her supporters.

A tearful Rhoda Jatau outside the courtroom on October 16, 2023. csi

At a hearing on November 27 the High Court in Bauchi State, northern Nigeria, rejected a “no-case submission” request brought by the defense. Jatau’s attorneys had hoped that the charges brought against her by the Bauchi authorities would be dismissed, paving the way for her release from jail.

But instead the court ruled in favor of the prosecution that Jatau has a case to answer. Her legal team must now present the case for the defense.

Jatau faces charges of inciting public disturbance, “exciting contempt of religious creed”, and cyber stalking. The “contempt” charge is the civil equivalent of blasphemy under Islamic shari’a law.

Solomon Mwantiri, a human rights advocate and a member of Jatau’s legal team, said he was “hugely disappointed” with the court ruling.

UN experts voice concern

Jatau’s defence team submitted their request for the case to be dropped at a hearing on October 16 attended by members of the press and human rights observers. Also present was Jatau’s husband, Ya’u Adamu, who has been raising their children alone since his wife’s arrest.

Jatau has been in custody since May 20, 2022. She was accused of blasphemy in connection with a video she allegedly shared with colleagues condemning the lynching of a Christian college student, Deborah Yakubu, in Sokoto State a week earlier.

Following her arrest, Jatau’s family went into hiding for their own security. The mother of five has only seen members of her family at court hearings.

In a joint statement to the Nigerian government made public in October, UN experts expressed concern at the arrest and detention of Jatau for merely peacefully exercising her right to freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief.  They also pointed out that Jatau has been repeatedly denied bail and since her arrest has only had intermittent access to legal counsel.

Delays in the legal process

Under the shari’a laws of northern Nigeria, blasphemy is a capital offense carrying the death penalty on conviction. Nigerian Christians have been the primary targets of such laws since 1999 when 12 northern states – including Bauchi – introduced Islamic law into their criminal code. The change to the penal code means that high courts, as well as shari’a courts, can try defendants under shari’a law in these states.

The trial has been marked by adjournments and postponements, which human rights activists construe as delaying tactics aimed at denying Jatau justice and keeping her in custody. They maintain that the prosecution does not have a case that could stand up to scrutiny in court.

The same wave of adjournments and postponements was seen in the case of the arraignment of Luka Binniyat, a Christian journalist from Southern Kaduna who was accused of cyberstalking in 2022. Binniyat was eventually released from jail as his case gained international media attention.

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