For 14 months, or 63 weeks, or 442 days, or 10,599 hours, or 635,974 minutes, or 38,158,447 seconds, Mubarak Bala has been imprisoned at a correctional facility in Kano State without charge, accused of blasphemy.
Mubarak Bala would be the first to admit that he was once a devout Muslim who admired Osama Bin Laden and had extreme religious views. In a 2015 interview with pan-African media organisation, This Is Africa, Mubarak said he was trained in the Wahhabi Islamic thought with a jihad ideology. This was not strange, it was almost expected. But when he stopped believing that a god existed, it caused a ruckus. He had become “an atheist, a godless humanist, an advocate for social justice, a family man, a thinker and a writer”.
This declaration, which he made in 2014, landed him in a psychiatric hospital in Kano, where he was held for 18 days against his will. His relationship with his family was strained, and death threats came in their numbers in defence of god. He was 29 years old at the time.
The first psychiatrist his family had taken him to see said there was nothing wrong with him. But his family needed to understand this change they were seeing in their son. They took him to a second psychiatrist who told him there was no such thing as atheism, forcing him to take medication.
Six years later, Mubarak was the President of the Humanist Association of Nigeria. His views were unchanged. And in certain quarters, considered blasphemous. On April 26, 2020 he wrote on his Facebook page in Hausa, the dominant language of the northern part of Nigeria which is predominantly Islam: “Babu bambanci tsakanin Annabi TB Joshua (S.A.W) na Legas da Muhammadu (A.S.) na Saudiyya, gara ma namu na Najeriya baya ta’addanci.”
When FIJ asked a translator for the meaning of what Mubarak wrote, she first exclaimed that the statement read as blasphemous and was also partly what stoked the religious crisis in Kano in 2001. She translated, “There is no difference between Prophet TB Joshua (S.A.W) of Lagos and Muhammadu (A.S.) of Saudi Arabia, even ours of Nigeria is not terrorism.”
His Facebook post went viral and got the attention of the S.S. Umar & Co. Chambers, which wrote a three-paged petition against Mubarak, a day later, to the Commissioner of Police in Kano State for publicly insulting Prophet Muhammad.
In 1999, when Nigeria’s nascent democracy was taking shape, the Shari’a law was introduced in some northern states. Religious intolerance and violence has since found some sort of backing despite the country’s Constitution stating that Nigeria is a secular country. The Kano State Hisbah Corps, a religious police, has gained notoriety for breaking beer bottles and implementing the Shari’a law. Though they are subject to the Nigeria Police Force, and are not supposed to make arrests, many times they erode the power of the Police. This has led to contentious debates surrounding the unity of the country.
Two days after Mubarak’s post, and a day after the Police had received the petition for the arrest of Mubarak from S.S. Umar, on the evening of April 28, 2020, Mubarak was taken from his house in Kaduna State and driven to an unknown location in Kano State on the orders of the former Commissioner of Police of Kano State, CP Habu Sani. His post, which at the time of this report had generated over two thousand comments, was filled with death threats.
Back in Abuja, his wife Amina had just given birth to their son and was recovering. She saw the post and many threats on Facebook and had a strong feeling that something would happen to him. She knew he made such posts, but that particular post made her afraid that there might be consequences. Mubarak had told her nothing would happen to him. She had insisted he come down from Kaduna where he used to work, to Abuja. Prior to that time, Mubarak was to visit his family, but the Covid-19 restrictions which made inter-state travel difficult stopped him from coming.
When Mubarak was arrested, it was his friend, Leo Igwe, the founder of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, who called Amina to inform her of what had happened. Two days later, when Mubarak was moved to Kano State in the middle of the night, Leo called again to update her. Leo had wanted Mubarak to report the threats he was receiving on Facebook to the Police, but Mubarak had brushed it off.
For ten seconds, before his phone was snatched away, Mubarak had called Leo trying to tell him to arrange a lawyer. “The next thing I heard was that he had been transferred, that it wasn’t their case, it was Kano State Command case,” Leo told FIJ.
When he called the Police in Kano, Leo was told by the Commissioner of Police that they were waiting for Mubarak… that Mubarak had committed blasphemy and that they would charge him to court. The lawyer who has been representing Mubarak has been in Kano since May 2020, Leo said.
“For six months we were looking for him trying to track where he was. We called, they didn’t pick our calls. We involved Amnesty and the UN.”
When Amina called Habu Sani, the then Commissioner of Police, and told him she was Mubarak’s wife, he barked from the other end of the line, “Who is Mubarak! Who is Mubarak!” When she sought to confirm that she had the right number, he cut the call.
Leo had spoken with Habu, who confirmed that Mubarak was in their custody. Amina kept calling and sending messages. She was ignored, or told that Habu was in a meeting. No one was talking to her or giving her answers to what her husband had done or why he was arrested.
Three months later, Amina received a call. It was from the Kano State Police Public Relations Officer. He had called to tell her that Mubarak was no longer in their custody and he wasn’t going to tell her where he was. Even when Amina demanded to know Mubarak’s whereabouts, as his wife, who was taking care of his newborn baby, no response was given.
The 1999 Nigerian Constitution states that anyone who is arrested or detained shall be informed in writing within 24 hours of the facts and grounds of his arrest. Mubarak received no such information.
The PRO later told Amina that Mubarak had been charged to court in absentia so that people won’t attack the court. The PRO no longer responded to Amina’s messages or calls.
“It was seven months after my husband disappeared, that’s when I heard from him for the first time,” Amina told FIJ.
Mubarak was able to use a phone from the correctional centre to give her a call. “Are you still alive?” Amina had asked him, shocked. He had spent two months in a small cell at the State CID before he was moved to prison. Hearing her husband’s voice was a relief she needed that he was still alive and that her son would still be able to see his father.
“It was such a huge relief for me because I was going through mental trauma and psychological torture not seeing him or knowing where he was, no communication. Nothing. If he was somewhere and he was communicating with me, I’d be okay, no problem,” Amina said.
As we talk, Amina’s son, who is now 16 months, cries for attention. He has grown without knowing his father’s face. Amina talks to her son, tells him sorry as he cries for attention and tries to quieten him. She tells me that on December 21, 2020, the Federal High Court in Abuja under Hon. Justice Inyang Edem Ekwo had given an order that Mubarak be released.
It was only late last year, after seven months, that Amina and her son were able to see Mubarak in the prison where he was locked up. It was an emotional reunion, a short one that has brought a much-needed respite to her emotions and her mental state.
Justice Ekwo had stated in his judgement order that the arrest and continuous detention of Mubarak constituted an infraction on his “rights to Personal Liberty, Fair Hearing, Freedom of Thought, Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Movement” as entrenched in the Nigerian constitution and the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights.
Justice Ekwo had also ordered that the respondents “tender a written and unqualified apology” to Mubarak, which should be published in two national dailies within 72 ours of the delivery of judgement. None of the judgement orders has been carried out till date.
Petitions to the Governor of Kano State and the Inspector General of Police have all gone unheeded, Leo says.
“I’m deeply pained that a colleague, a fellow Nigerian, could be put behind bars without any clear case in terms of prosecution and nobody cares,” he laments.
“They just picked him up and for six months we never heard from him. I ask myself, what crime did he commit? I ask myself, are we living in a country guided by the rule of law or are we living in a country guided by whims and caprices of a religious bigot, where Police are doing the bidding of fanatics?”
Mubarak’s trial is set to take place on Wednesday at the Abuja High Court, Apo. On social media, the hashtag #FreeMubarakBala was used to rally support for his release. Once in a while, one comes across the hashtag which, like many other cases of injustice in Nigeria, is dying in the minds of many.
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