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“No one should be sentenced to death for peaceful expression”—Human rights advocates call on Nigeria to release prisoner of conscience Yahaya Sharif-Aminu

WASHINGTON, DC (18 May 2023) – 209 human rights and religious freedom organizations, together with leading international and Nigerian advocates, have joined together to call for the immediate release of prisoner of conscience Yahaya-Sharif Aminu. A young Nigerian Sufi musician, Sharif-Aminu was sentenced to death by hanging in 2020 on charges of “blasphemy” for two voice messages he sent on WhatsApp. For the peaceful expression of his beliefs, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to hanging by Sharia court. He now awaits his appeal at the Supreme Court of Nigeria. 

The joint letter, addressed to Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s outgoing president, calls for his immediate release, and also directs attention to Kano State’s draconian blasphemy laws, which violate both international law and the Nigerian Constitution.  

The letter, which can be found in full here, reads: “Yahaya Sharif-Aminu should never have been arrested and imprisoned in the first instance. Instead, he has had to suffer mob violence and spend years in prison for simply and peacefully sharing his beliefs with others”. 

It further states: “Democracy cannot function when the most basic freedoms are not protected, and as the largest democracy in Africa, Nigeria’s example matters. But now, Nigeria and Your Excellency have an opportunity to set a strong example that you will work to protect the rights of your citizens, not disregard them. For all of these reasons, we reiterate our call that Nigeria immediately release Yahaya Sharif-Aminu”. 

Sean Nelson, Legal Counsel for ADF International, which coordinated the effort, said: “No one should be sentenced to death or thrown in prison for their peaceful expression and their beliefs. We are proud to stand with so many Nigerian and international experts in calling for Yahaya Sharif-Aminu’s immediate release. Yahaya’s release would send a strong message that Nigeria will work to protect these cherished fundamental freedoms of free expression and freedom of religion. We welcome others to unite their voices with this effort to immediate release Yahaya Sharif-Aminu”. 

Diverse group of organizations and experts supporting Yahaya’s release 

The letter has been signed by international human rights experts including Dr. David Curry, former Congressman Frank Wolf, former Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Katrina Lantos Swett, former UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief Heiner Bielefeldt and former Sudanese prisoner of conscience Mariam Ibraheem. Signatories also include current and former parliamentarians from the UK, Netherlands, and the European Parliament.  

The letter also has been signed by several leading voices in the Nigerian music and culture industries, including musician Eedris Abdulkareem, actor and educator Norbert Young, actor and producer Sam Uche Anyamele, rapper and poet El-Yaqub Ismail (a.k.a. Ricqy Ultra), President of the Directors Guild of Nigeria, Victor Okhai, and President of the Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria, Pretty Okafor, journalist and film curator Dr. Shuaibu Husseini, and culture curator Jahman Anikulapo, amongst others.  

The letter includes signatories from a diverse group of organizations and experts from secular and various faith-based backgrounds, as well as from a wide diversity of countries, including Nigeria. 

Death sentence for “blasphemy”  

In 2020, Sufi Muslim Yahaya Sharif-Aminu was sentenced to death by hanging for “blasphemy”. His alleged crime involved sending song lyrics on WhatsApp that were deemed blasphemous toward the prophet Mohammed.   

With support from human rights legal advocacy group ADF International, Sharif-Aminu has appealed his case to the Supreme Court of Nigeria and is challenging the constitutionality of Sharia-based blasphemy laws. He remains in prison awaiting the Supreme Court appeal. His case is far from an isolated incident. Together with minority Muslims, the persecution of Christians in Nigeria is especially severe. In 2022, approximately 90% of all Christians worldwide that were killed for their faith were in Nigeria.  

International pressure has been mounting to free Yahaya and end blasphemy laws. Recently, the European Parliament overwhelmingly called for the immediate release of Sharif-Aminu. 

A newly released video from ADF International features testimonies from Yahaya’s mother, father, and uncle, who recount the traumatic experiences endured by Yahaya and their family. Also featured in the video is international human rights attorney, Kola Alapinni, who represents Yahaya Sharif-Aminu and has partnered with ADF International to secure Sharif-Aminu’s freedom.  

Sharif-Aminu’s potentially landmark Supreme Court appeal could end blasphemy laws in his home state of Kano and across northern Nigeria. A positive decision could lead the way toward abolishing blasphemy laws around the world. 

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