Global Freedom of Expression

MFWA and ISLP Submit Amicus Curiae Brief to Supreme Court of Nigeria In Blasphemy Case With Death Penalty Sentence

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    Artistic Expression, Digital Rights

The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) and the International Senior Lawyers Project (ISLP) submitted an amicus curiae petition to the Supreme Court of Nigeria in the Case of Yahaya Sharif-Aminu v. Attorney General. 

Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, a 22-year-old musician, expressed his religious beliefs, having circulated a song on WhatsApp. The song was deemed blasphemous. Detained in Kano State, in northern Nigeria, Yahaya Sharif-Aminu now faces the risk of execution: an Upper Sharia Court charged him with the crime of blasphemy and sentenced him to death by hanging. Yahaya Sharif-Aminu has remained on death row since 2020. His appeal is now pending before the Supreme Court of Nigeria.

Richard N. Winfield, who leads media law reform programs of the ISLP, wrote the amicus curiae in the names of the ISLP, a non-governmental organization of 2,000 volunteer human rights lawyers that Winfield co-founded in 2000, and MFWA, a non-governmental organization with a network of sixteen national partner organizations devoted to freedom of expression.

The amicus curiae petition states,

“As a signatory of the ICCPR and African Charter, Nigeria is subject to limitations on punishment for expression. The substance of rights granted in the ICCPR is demonstrated through comparison to equivalent rights enshrined in the European Convention, as interpreted by the prestigious ECtHR. This in turn informs the formation of international human rights norms which bear on the continuous interpretation and implementation of these influential human rights instruments. We submit that the Court should weigh the State’s actions against (1) the human rights guarantees which Nigeria made in ratifying the ECtHR, an international treaty, (2) international norms found in the case law of the ECtHR and (3) the guarantees which Nigeria made in ratifying the African Charter.

“When those in authority deploy criminal actions to punish controversial speech ostensibly to vindicate their honor, dignity, deeply held principles, reputation or to preserve order, a more realistic view holds that their purpose and certainly their effect is to intimidate and silence others. Such actions raise the stakes against the prospect of future controversial speech. What suffers is the free flow of information that is vital to vigorous community discourse. If such expression is to be protected effectively, the rules governing litigation against such speakers are critically important.

“When the extent of an individual’s right to engage in controversial speech is called into question, the State has a heightened responsibility to ensure that proper treatment and protection of that individual’s rights is upheld.

“Finally, no international court has ever held that the State may imprison a defendant for having uttered controversial speech.

“More importantly, no international court has ever held that the State may take the life of a citizen for having uttered controversial speech.”

A copy of the amicus curiae brief is available below.


Richard N. Winfield

Chair, Fund for Peace, USA, Adjunct Professor, Columbia Law School, Columbia University, USA