Civil society organisations on Friday described as alien to modern society, the conviction and death sentencing of a young Nigerian gospel singer, Yahaya Sharif, for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad in a song he published.
The groups in a joint statement titled, ‘Joint Civil Society Statement On The Conviction And Sentencing Of Nigerian Singer Yahaya Sharif Aminu,’ said they were deeply concerned that Sharif’s conviction and subsequent sentencing were in violation of Nigeria’s regional and international obligations to respect, protect and promote freedom of expression, opinion and belief.
The statement was signed by the Committee for Relevant Art, African Defenders, Arterial Network Nigeria, PEN Nigeria, Artistes at Risk Connection, Culture Advocates Caucus, Human Right Forum of Lead Africa International, Intro Afrika, Freemuse and African Human Rights Network.
The statement indicated, “The sentencing to death of Mr Sharif amounts to a cruel and inhumane practice, which has no place in a modern society.”
On August 10, 2020, an Upper Shari’a Court sitting at Hausawa Filin Hockey in Kano State, sentenced the singer to death by hanging.
He was accused of one count of insulting the religious creed, contrary to Section 382 (6) of the Kano State Sharia Penal Code Law of 2000, for a song which became public knowledge in March after he allegedly circulated it on WhatsApp in February 2020.
The song is said to have “praised an imam from the Tijaniya Muslim brotherhood to the extent it elevated him above the Prophet Muhammad.”
According to the groups, it has been reported that while Sharif was legally represented during the trial, the proceedings were closed to the public which raised fair trial rights concerns.
It stated, “The right to a public trial which is guaranteed under Nigeria’s constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, both of which Nigeria is a signatory to, ensure transparency and guard an accused against secretive, corrupt or unfair proceedings.
We are further concerned that since his conviction, it has been reported that Mr Sharif is being held incommunicado in detention with no access to legal representation and to his immediate family. This is a further violation of his due process rights and potentially jeopardises his right to an appeal for which he has 30 days from the date of sentencing.
The case of Mr Sharif is not in isolation as there have been several other artistes in Nigeria who have been arrested and criminally charged in relation to their artistic works.
For over a year, Nigerian singer and activist, Mohammad Yusuf Yakasai, popularly known as A.G.Y, was imprisoned at Goron Dutse Correctional Centre following his conviction on June 19, 2019, for a song that criticised Governor Abdullahi Ganduje of Kano State.
In June 2020, a Federal High Court ordered the remand of poet and broadcast journalist, Rotimi Jolayeumi a.k.a Oba Akewi, after he was arrested for sending a poem to a WhatsApp group which was highly critical of Nigerian Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed.
In December 2019, eight musicians from Kebbi State were physically assaulted for a song critical of Governor Atiku Badugu.
“In September 2019, famous Kano singer, Nazir Ahmad, popularly called Sarkin Wakan Kano, was arrested for allegedly releasing two uncensored musical albums and operating an illegal studio. The albums reportedly criticised the state governor, Abdullahi Ganduje.”
The groups further stated that no one should be arbitrarily detained or arrested for peacefully expressing their opinion, thought and conscience.
They added, “The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief has called on all states with blasphemy laws on their statute books to repeal the same in order to increase freedom of religion or belief, as well as encourage a healthy dialogue about religion.
“Furthermore, artistic expressions which are also guaranteed under international law, open space for citizens to “reflect upon society, express their fears and grievances in a non-violent manner, develop resilience after violent or traumatic experiences, including human rights violations. And imagine the future they want for themselves.”
“We, therefore, call on the Nigerian authorities to immediately and unconditionally overturn Mr Sharif’s conviction and that he be immediately released. Pending his release, he must be guaranteed access to his lawyers and his family while in detention. We also call on the Nigerian government to urgently repeal all blasphemy laws, and to ensure that all individuals under its jurisdiction are afforded the right to freedom of religion, expression and opinion including through art and culture,” the groups concluded.
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