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Sentenced to Death for WhatsApp Lyrics, Petition for Nigerian Musician’s Release Brought to UN Working Group

GENEVA (25 September 2023) ADF International and international human rights lawyer Kola Alapinni today filed a complaint to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention advocating for the release of Yahaya Sharif-Aminu—a young Sufi musician sentenced to death and currently imprisoned under the blasphemy law of Kano State in northern Nigeria. Yahaya has been held in prison since his arrest in March of 2020, after which he was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging by a Sharia court. The UN Working Group is a body of independent human rights experts that investigate cases of arbitrary arrest and detention. 

Yahaya Sharif-Aminu’s case was filed at the Supreme Court of Nigeria in November 2022, and has the potential to overturn the country’s draconian blasphemy law regime. The Supreme Court has yet to announce when the case will be heard. 

“The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention’s opinion declaring the continuing prosecution and detention of Yahaya as arbitrary in violation of international law would be of great benefit not only to free Yahaya, but also to highlight the human rights abuses enabled by blasphemy laws in Nigeria,” stated Sean Nelson, legal counsel for global religious freedom and ADF International’s lead lawyer on the case of Yahaya Sharif-Aminu. 

“As a consequence of the country’s blasphemy laws, Nigerian citizens, particularly in the northern part of the country, lack the full freedom to speak about their beliefs and live out their faith. Blasphemy laws destabilize societies, provoke violence, and ultimately violate religious freedom and freedom of expression. It is far past time for authorities in Nigeria to release Yahaya and put an end to these blasphemy laws,” added Nelson. 

Death sentence for “blasphemy”  

A recently released short video from ADF International features Yahaya’s story, including testimonies from his family. 

In 2020, Sufi Muslim singer 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. While his conviction eventually was overturned due to lack of legal representation at his trial, he was ordered a retrial where he would face the same death penalty blasphemy law. With support from ADF International, Yahaya has appealed his case to the Supreme Court of Nigeria and is challenging the constitutionality of Sharia-based blasphemy laws.  

“Three and a half years later, Yahaya is languishing in prison for the simple act of sending a WhatsApp message expressing religious beliefs and opinions through song lyrics,” stated Kola Alapinni, the international human rights lawyer who is representing Yahaya at the Supreme Court of Nigeria and working alongside ADF International to secure justice for Yahaya. 

Alapinni further noted: “No one should be imprisoned, and much less sentenced to death, under the law for peacefully sharing beliefs and opinions about religion. We Nigerians urgently await action on the part of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. Yahaya’s release would send a strong message that Nigeria will work to protect the fundamental freedoms of free expression and freedom of religion. It is our hope that all who are able to, including influential voices at the UN, will join us in speaking out on Yahaya’s behalf”. 

Yahaya remains in prison awaiting the Supreme Court to hear his appeal. Meanwhile, his case is far from an isolated incident. Many others have been prosecuted for alleged blasphemy and religious insult in Nigeria. Further, together with minority Muslims, the persecution of Christians in Nigeria is severe. In 2022, approximately 90% of all Christians worldwide who were killed for their faith were in Nigeria.   

International pressure has been mounting to free Yahaya and end blasphemy laws. Earlier this year, over 200 international and Nigerian human rights advocates sent a letter to Nigeria’s outgoing president, Muhammadu Buhari, calling for Yahaya’s immediate release. The European Parliament also called for his release in a near-unanimous resolution that urged Nigeria to repeal its blasphemy laws. 

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