Joint statement

NGOs file UN petition to free Nigerian humanist Mubarak Bala on the 3rd anniversary of his arrest

Humanists International, Freedom Now, and Freedom House, with the support of Dechert LLP, today jointly filed a petition to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to free Mubarak Bala, an advocate for freedom of religion or belief serving a 24-year sentence in a Nigerian prison. The filing coincides with the 3-year anniversary of Bala’s arrest for expressing secular views on social media and leaving Islam.

The son of an Islamic scholar and a chemical engineer by training, Bala began exploring religion in his youth and spoke openly about leaving Islam. He began advocating for freedom of religion or belief, and was particularly outspoken about the restrictive environment in his home state of Kano, which employs Sharia law. He also campaigned against blasphemy laws, educated others about human rights, and spoke out on the dangers of religious extremism. As Bala became one of the country’s most prominent critics of harmful religious practices, he began receiving death threats. In 2014, his father and uncles conspired to drug, beat, and forcibly commit him to a psychiatric ward, claiming that his atheism was a sign of a personality disorder. 

Bala was released after a two-week stay, only to face continued threats to his safety and accusations of ‘apostasy’ for his decision to break from Islam, even though states using Sharia law in Nigeria do not label it as an offense in their penal codes. After a period in hiding, Bala decided to stay in Nigeria, moving to the secular Kaduna State. He became president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, advocating for freedom of religion or belief and humanist values.

“Mubarak Bala is a significant and valued member of the global humanist community,” said Emma Wadsworth-Jones, Humanists International’s casework and campaigns manager. “As president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, Bala has worked tirelessly to promote human rights education, freedom of religion or belief for all, peace, and stability. His arrest sent shockwaves through our community, not least in Nigeria, where many of our community faced an escalation in the level of threats against them simply for living a life true to their values.”

In April 2020, Bala was arrested by plainclothes officers in Kaduna over Facebook comments that some alleged had insulted the prophet Muhammad. He was transferred back to Kano.

The case against Bala was riddled with procedural irregularities from the very beginning. He was held without charge for more than a year and denied access to medical care and to his legal team, during a time when Nigeria’s constitutional promise of freedom of religion or belief was severely undermined. The Federal High Court in Abuja ruled Bala’s arrest unconstitutional in December 2020 and ordered authorities to release him on bail, but that order was ignored. When Bala’s trial finally concluded in April 2022, he received a severe and disproportionate 24-year prison sentence from the Kano State High Court, which ignored his pleas for leniency.

“Nigeria’s own Federal High Court has recognized that the imprisonment of Bala was in contravention of domestic law and an infringement of his fundamental right to freedom of expression,” said Karl Horberg, program director at Freedom Now. “His continued detention is wrongful and a blatant violation of Nigeria’s international obligations to protect its citizens’ rights.”

Nigeria scores 43/100 in Freedom House’s 2023 Freedom in the World report. The country has a score of 20/40 for political rights and 23/60 for civil liberties. Indeed, according to Humanists International’s Freedom of Thought report, “Nonreligious people face social persecution and prohibitive social taboos in Nigeria.” Humanists and other nonreligious individuals face regular harassment and persecution, and are often painted as “immoral”; many face threats of violence and are forced to conceal their true beliefs and identity to ensure their own security. The nonreligious are often completely overlooked for inclusion in dialogues on freedom of religion or belief and tolerance. Bala’s case painfully demonstrates not only how pervasive the repression of freedom of religion or belief is in Nigeria, but how ineffective institutions like the Federal High Court are in upholding constitutional protections.

“No one should be jailed for peacefully expressing their religious views or decision not to practice a religion, let alone serve a 24-year sentence for it,” said Margaux Ewen, director of Freedom House’s Political Prisoners Initiative. “That is why we join our partners today in urging the UN Working Group to determine Bala’s detention is arbitrary so that he may be immediately and unconditionally released.”

With the submission of this substantive update to an original petition filed by Humanists International in August 2020, the co-petitioning organizations seek the issuance of an opinion of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in favor of our belief that the detention of Mubarak Bala has violated his human rights and is arbitrary.