Blasphemy Laws Violate Human Rights—UN Experts Seek Justice for Deborah Samuel and Rhoda Jatau

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In response to appeals from ADF International and other religious freedom advocacy organizations, United Nations experts have sent a joint allegation letter to the Nigerian government, highlighting the danger of blasphemy laws as a violation of international human rights. The letter highlights in detail the case of Deborah Emmanuel Yakubu, murdered and set on fire by a mob of her classmates in May 2022 for sharing her Christian faith. It further calls for the government’s attention to the case of Rhoda Jatau, Christian mother of five, imprisoned since May 2022 for allegedly sharing a video on WhatsApp condemning Deborah’s killing. 

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Signatories to the letter are: Nazila Ghanea, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Matthew Gillett, Vice-Chair on communications of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Morris Tidball-Binz, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and Fernand de Varennes, Special Rapporteur on minority issues. 

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The appeal, addressed to the government of Nigeria, states: “Blasphemy laws have repeatedly shown to violate freedom of religion and belief as well as have a stifling effect on open dialogue and public discourse”. In addition, “they often fuel stereotyping, stigmatization, discrimination and incitement to violence”.   

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With regard to the killing of Deborah Emmanuel Yakubu and Rhoda Jatau’s imprisonment, the experts note: “Both cases appear to be related to the legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and of freedom of opinion and expression. Both are members of a religious minority”. The letter details relevant facts surrounding their cases. 

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The appeal was sent to Nigeria on 4 August 2023 and publicly posted in early October, following a 60-day confidentiality period in which the Nigerian government could respond. At the time of the publication of the UN experts’ communication, the Nigerian government had not provided a response to the letter. The letter states that the information contained within it may be transmitted to the UN’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention for a determination regarding Rhoda Jatau.  

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Should the allegations be confirmed, the letter states that Nigeria would fall short of its international human rights obligations, specifically the rights to nondiscrimination, the right to life, the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment, liberty and security of person, the right to a fair trial, the right to freedom of opinion and expression, equality before the law, and the rights of minorities, as enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. 

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“Blasphemy laws, in Nigeria and elsewhere around the world, stand in clear violation of international law. ADF International is committed to securing justice for Rhoda Jatau and continues to honor the memory of Deborah Emmanuel Yakubu, who died for being a peaceful witness to her Christian faith at the hands of an angry mob,” stated Giorgio Mazzoli, Director of UN Advocacy for ADF International. 

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Mazzoli added: “Rhoda Jatau has been imprisoned and held incommunicado for nearly a year and a half. For allegedly sharing a video on WhatsApp condemning the murder of Deborah Emmanuel Yakubu, her most basic human rights have been violated. We are hopeful that international advocacy efforts, including this letter from UN experts to the government of Nigeria, will secure the release of Rhoda, and pave the way for the abolition of blasphemy laws in the country”. 

In response to the letter, Joseph Danboyi, ADF International allied lawyer and lead counsel for Rhoda Jatau’s case, said “We are grateful that the international community is raising their concerns over Rhoda Jatau’s case. The case against her is unjust, and we hope and pray that she will be released soon. Please continue to speak out on Rhoda’s behalf and pray for her and all Christians in Nigeria”. Rhoda’s next hearing is on 28 November. 

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The UN letter comes in response to appeals from ADF International, Christian Solidarity International, and Jubilee Campaign. ADF International is providing legal support for Rhoda Jatau’s case. 

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Deborah & Rhoda—Punished for their Faith 

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In the letter, the UN experts highlight how blasphemy laws “legitimise negative and violent social attitudes towards members of religious minorities, and encourage and lead to acts of violence against them by individuals holding extreme religious and political views”. The cases of Deborah Emmanuel Yakubu and Rhoda Jatau are but two examples of the widespread violence against religious minorities, including Christians in Northern Nigeria, prevalent in Nigeria today.  

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In May 2022, Deborah, a Christian university student in Nigeria, was stoned and beaten to death, and her body burned, by a mob of her Muslim classmates in Sokoto State. They accused her of blasphemy for thanking Jesus for helping her pass an exam on social media. The mob attack was recorded and widely circulated online. In connection with the attack, two students were arrested and charged with “inciting and causing public disturbance,” but were later released for failure to prosecute.  

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In response to the brutal attack on Deborah, Rhoda Jatau, also a Christian, allegedly condemned her murder in a WhatsApp post in May 2022. For this, she was targeted by a large mob who sought to kill her, and was arrested. Rhoda’s trial commenced in December 2022, and she repeatedly has been denied bail. From the time of her arrest, Rhoda has been detained incommunicado, only having intermittent access to legal counsel and family members during court appearances.  

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“Rhoda Jatau’s fundamental freedoms have been egregiously violated. No person should be silenced or imprisoned for peacefully sharing their views. Blasphemy laws cultivate a culture of fear and perpetuate violence, and they must be eradicated if Nigeria is to uphold its international human rights obligations,” stated Sean Nelson, Legal Counsel for Global Religious Freedom for ADF International.  

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Nigeria’s Persecution of Christians 

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Together with other religious minorities in Nigeria, the persecution of Christians in Nigeria is especially severe. Worldwide, over 5,500 Christians were killed for their faith last year. Of those, 90% were Nigerian.   

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ADF International is also supporting the legal defence of Nigerian musician Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, a Sufi Muslim who was sentenced to death by hanging for sharing song lyrics that were deemed “blasphemous” on WhatsApp. With the support of ADF International, Yahaya is appealing his case to the Supreme Court of Nigeria in the hopes of overturning the death penalty blasphemy laws in Nigeria. Yahaya remains in prison awaiting his appeal. Yahaya has been imprisoned for over three and a half years. 

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