Today marks the ninetieth day since the police arrested Mubarak Bala, president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, in Kaduna. They later transferred him to Kano, where he has been held incommunicado, without access to a lawyer or a legal representation. Bala has not been formally charged or allowed to see his family members. There has not been an independent confirmation that Mubarak Bala is alive. There has not been a confirmation of the exact place where they detained him, and his well being. Both governmental and non-governmental agencies, including some foreign Christian faith NGOs, have called for his release. But so far, the Nigerian authorities have ignored all the appeals. Requests to charge or release Mr. Bala have fallen on deaf ears. Following what has transpired since his arrest, the police are not committed to prosecuting Mr. Bala as required by law. At the same time, they are unwilling to release him. The police are only interested in disappearing Mubarak Bala as demanded by the Islamist power base that sponsored the petition. However, some days ago, the UN rights experts issued a landmark statement asking Nigeria to release Mr. Bala.
In the release, they noted some key points that I would like to reiterate here.
First of all, the UN experts stated that the arrest and detention of Mubarak Bala amounted to the persecution of non-believers in Nigeria. Indeed the arrest of Bala illustrates the systemic and institutionalized oppression of religious nonbelievers in the country especially those who live in muslim dominated areas. Religious nonbelievers are treated as second class and, in some cases, third-class citizens, who should be seen and not heard or who should neither be seen nor heard. Bala has been accused of making blasphemous posts on Facebook. Those who petitioned him said that he called the prophet of Islam a terrorist and a pedophile. Now, religious believers freely express their views about the prophets, but nonbelievers are denied the same right and freedom. Meanwhile, religious believers openly and publicly express their thoughts about atheism and atheistic icons without being arrested and detained.
More so, Bala only made posts on Facebook. He did not attack or kill as many Muslim extremists have done across the country with impunity. So, Bala's only crime is that he is an atheist.
The UN experts also highlighted another crucial point. That expression of opinion and beliefs, including those that could be seen to offend religious sensibilities, were protected by international law and should not be restricted. Those who brought the petition against Mubarak Bala stated that his Facebook posts angered and irritated Muslims. But these right experts have made it clear that remarks, comments, and expressions that could be deemed as religiously provocative or insulting, whether they are made by Christians, Muslims, Hindus, or non-believers, are protected by law. They should not be criminalized.
Furthermore, the UN experts went further and stated that as in the case of Mr. Bala: “No one should be arbitrarily detained or arrested for expressing peacefully their opinion, thought and conscience or for simply being an atheist". The posts that Bala made on Facebook were opinions that he peacefully expressed. Were they not? The UN statement condemned the harassment, discrimination, and persecution of religious nonbelievers, or persons who identify as atheists or disbelievers in God or Allah.
Now, some are saying that the UN statement would make no difference in the situation of Mubarak Bala because the people behind the arrest are Islamic fanatics who do not care about what the UN says. They are of the view that the 'Sharia' police in Kano would not abide by the directive of the UN. They will not release Mubarak Bala because the Islamist government in Kano does not reckon with the UN. It does not respect human rights. Others believe that the Muslim sponsors of the petition care only about Sharia, not international law. That the islamists are hell-bent on punishing Mr. Bala directly or indirectly in line with Islamic law. Thus what is going on in Kano is a prosecution according to the state law as we know. It is a legal charade because Islamists are using the police and court as fronts to consummate their jihadist intent and penalize Mubarak Bala for blaspheming against prophet Muhammad.
But after ninety days of detention without trial, access to a lawyer and family visits, the police should rethink their handling of Bala's case. The police should listen to the UN experts and do the needful-release Mubarak Bala. The police should initiate a negotiated settlement of the case and end this stalemate in Kano. The petitioners and the Islamist sponsors should realize that the continued illegal detention of Mr. Bala is setting a precedent that will negatively reflect on Islam and Muslims in Nigeria and beyond.