Content Regulation / Censorship, Political Expression, Religious Freedom
The Case of Hamad Al-Naqi (Kuwait Twitter Blasphemy Case)
On Appeal Contracts Expression
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The High Court of Kano State in Nigeria convicted and sentenced Muhammad Mubarak Bala, a self-identified atheist, to 24 years in prison for blasphemy and breach of public peace. Bala was arrested for posting messages on his Facebook page in March 2020 that were deemed blasphemous and potentially disruptive to public peace. He was arrested in Kaduna State, his neighboring state, in April 2020, following a petition by a group of lawyers. Bala spent a year in detention without charges before finally being arraigned in February 2022. Two years after his arrest, he changed course and he pleaded guilty to 18 amended charges in April 2022. The Court, in its decision, noted that Bala did not provide sufficient reasons to avoid conviction, leading to his sentencing to 24 years in prison for the offenses.
On May 30, 2022, Bala’s legal team initiated the appeal process.
Mubarak Bala, the Defendant, a self-identified atheist from Kano State, Nigeria, became well-known in 2014 after his family forcibly admitted him to a psychiatric unit due to his disclosure of atheism. Subsequently, he became a vocal advocate for the rights and freedoms of atheists in Nigeria, serving as the President of the Nigerian Humanist Association while residing in Kaduna State.
On April 28, 2020, Bala was arrested following a Facebook post in which he allegedly insulted Prophet Muhammad, using derogatory terms like “pedophile” and “terrorist” while unfavorably comparing him to a Christian priest, Prophet T.B Joshua. His arrest came in response to a petition from a group of lawyers to the Kano State Police Commissioner, claiming that his Facebook posts were provocative and offensive to Muslims. A Change.org petition calling for the closure of Bala’s Facebook account gathered over 17,000 signatures but was later removed from the platform.
Kaduna State police, acting on a request from Kano State police, arrested Bala in his home and transferred him to Kano State police custody. Initially held without charges, Bala was detained for over a year. In December, a federal Court in Abuja declared his detention unconstitutional and ordered authorities in Kano to either charge him with a crime under secular law or release him.
On May 8, 2020, Bala’s legal counsel filed a fundamental rights petition with the Abuja High Court, seeking his release on the grounds that his detention violated his constitutional rights to liberty, fair trial, freedom of thought and expression, and freedom of movement.
On August 3, 2021, formal charges were finally brought against Bala before the High Court of Kano State of Nigeria, though he was not present in Court during the arraignment. He faced charges related to causing public disturbance in connection with five Facebook posts he allegedly made in April 2020, under Sections 210 and 114 of the Kano State Penal Code. In August 2021, the High Court of Kano State scheduled Bala’s case for arraignment but postponed proceedings due to his absence. The Court rescheduled the case for October 13, 2021, and issued a production warrant to ensure Bala’s presence. On February 1, 2022, Bala appeared in Court, represented by legal counsel, and pleaded not guilty to all 10 counts brought against him.
On April 4, 2022, during the legal proceedings, the prosecution expressed its intention to amend the charges against Bala, adding additional counts to the original 10. The Court ruled on a bail application but ultimately denied it, adjourning the hearing to April 5, 2022.
On April 5, 2022, the prosecution formally presented its application to amend the charges against Bala, which was granted. This increased the total count of charges to 18. On the same day, Bala, surprisingly, pled guilty to the charges before the High Court of Kano State of Nigeria.
Justice Farouk Lawan Adamu rendered the Court’s verdict, centering on critical aspects of the case. The primary focus was on Bala’s guilty plea, his understanding of its implications, any undue influence or coercion, and whether he could provide a valid reason to avoid conviction.
The Court first detailed the charges against Bala, primarily related to posting blasphemous statements on his Facebook page, deemed insulting to a particular religion under 210 of the Penal Code. The Court held that Bala had pleaded guilty to all 18 counts. [p. 12] Regarding Bala’s comprehension of the ramifications of his guilty pleas, the Court questioned him, and he affirmed his awareness that his pleas would result in punishment. [p. 13]
Concerning any potential external influence or pressure, Bala assured the Court that no one had coerced or promised him anything to elicit the guilty pleas. The Court then considered whether Bala could present a valid defense against conviction but found that he could not, noting that he had simply implored the Court for leniency and mercy. [p. 13]
Before delivering the sentence, Justice Adamu inquired whether the Bala wished to make an allocutus plea to mitigate his punishment. The Bala expressed remorse, disavowed any intention to incite violence, and pledged to exercise caution in the future. Additionally, Bala’s counsel made a plea for leniency, highlighting Bala’s first-time offender status, his remorse, and the absence of resource wastage during the trial. The Court also inquired whether Bala’s counsel intended to call character witnesses, but it was deemed unnecessary as the Prosecution had confirmed Bala’s lack of prior convictions.
In meting out the sentence, the Court considered both Bala’s and his counsel’s pleas for mitigation. However, the Court also admonished Bala, emphasizing that while freedom of religion was upheld, there were limits to expressing one’s beliefs, and caution was necessary. [p. 14-15] Justice Adamu noted that “No one stops him (Bala) from any religion, but he should understand that where his intent stops, the intent of another person starts, therefore the intent that he is thinking that he has to say whatever he wants to say or put anything is not absolute. He should be careful. There are a lot of people that may have the same ideology but not expose themselves like that.”
The court issued sentences for the various counts, comprising a total of 16 years of imprisonment without the possibility of a fine for counts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 11, 13, and 17, equating to 2 years for each count. Additionally, for counts 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 14, 16, and 18, which fall under Section 210 of the Penal Code, the court imposed 3 years of imprisonment for each count, resulting in a combined 24-year prison term without the option of a fine. This sentencing was intended to serve as a deterrent not only to the defendant but also to potential future offenders. [p. 17]
Update: On May 30, 2022, Bala’s legal team initiated the appeal process by submitting the Notice and Grounds of Appeal to the Appellate Court. Bala has directed his legal representatives to base his appeal on four specific grounds: contesting the jurisdiction of the Kano State High Court; raising concerns about the judge’s perceived bias, evident in the manner in which the ruling was delivered; highlighting the alleged failure to grant Bala the advantages associated with entering a guilty plea; and challenging the asserted misapplication of the law that led to Bala’s sentencing with consecutive terms.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
Despite the constitutional protections in Nigeria for freedom of expression, including the right to hold opinions and express them, the court’s decision to convict and sentence Bala to a lengthy prison term for his Facebook posts expressing his opinions on religion constitutes a significant restriction on his freedom of expression. The presiding judge’s remarks imply that there are limits to expressing one’s beliefs and that Bala should be cautious and effectively endorsed an interference with Bala’s constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of expression. This decision sends a message that individuals in Nigeria may face severe consequences for expressing opinions that some find offensive, even when they pertain to matters of religion. This is in clear violation of Section 39 (1) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) which states that “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference” and Article 19(1) of the ICCPR which provides that “Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.”
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